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Brotherhood of the gun
A region 2 DVD review of A BETTER TOMORROW II / YING HUNG BOON SIK II by Slarek
 

This review assumes you have seen A Better Tomorrow and briefly discusses plot points that will act as spoilers if you haven't.

 

If you're a fan of action cinema you should already have seen John Woo's 1986 A Better Tomorrow. If not, do so right now. This is the film that effectively gave birth to the 'Heroic Bloodshed' genre and set the style for pretty much all of Woo's subsequent Hong Kong work, in its spectacular action choreography, in its themes of brothers (in blood or spirit) on opposing sides who are united in a final showdown against a common enemy, in the director's relationship with lead actor Chow Yun-Fat, and in its love affair with guns, guns, guns.

A Better Tomorrow II picks up where the first film left off. Sung Ji Hou is serving time for his past misdemeanours, while his young brother Jiht is doing fine as a detective in the Hong Kong police. His latest case has him attempting to infiltrate an international counterfeiting ring by getting friendly with Peggy, the daughter of one-time Triad Lung Sei and the man the outgoing police chief suspects is the gang leader. Deciding on a two-pronged attack, the cops also lean on Hou to use his past friendship with Sei to chummy his way into the gang, something he resists until he realises that Jiht is also on the case. As you might expect, things don't go exactly to plan. The pair discover that Sei really has put his past life firmly behind him, but that his shipyard business is under threat from Triad gang leader Wong, whose attempts to intimidate Sei backfire on just about everyone – Wong ends up dead and Sei is in the frame for his murder. While Hou works on getting Sei into hiding, Jiht looks out for Peggy, which leaves him with some explaining to do to his pregnant wife. Both men are effectively back to square one, but out of loyalty to his friend, Hou becomes determined to find a way to infiltrate and expose those responsible for Sei's predicament.

Fans of the original will come to this film with certain expectations that you can't help but suspect Woo is deliberately playing games with. For much of the film's length action takes something of a back seat to drama, with the inevitable shoot-outs for the most part in the shadow of those in the original. Emotionally playing to the gallery at times (the sentimental song that wafts over the soundtrack when one character is killed is a painfully familiar element of Hong Kong action cinema), the film sketches its characters in unsurprisingly broad strokes, graduating to a king-sized wallpaper brush when the language switches from Chinese to English, which Woo clearly had no ear for at this stage in his career. The story unfolds a little unevenly, and Jiht continues to make a target of himself by wearing white at night and always going in alone, but the locations have been expanded from Part 1 to include New York, where Lung Sei is shipped off to and where Mark's twin brother Ken runs a Chinese restaurant.

Oh yes, Ken. Nowadays just about every action film you'll stumble into is planned with a possible sequel in mind, which is why all of the key characters are kept alive, but in the days of planned one-offs you were free to kill just about any character you pleased. This only presented a problem if the film was a hit and that one of the dead characters was a key reason for its popularity. Come time for a sequel the studio wants him back in the story, but you've killed him off. So what do you do? Any solution you come up with is lumbered with an "Oh come on!" factor, whether it be that he didn't die after all, despite what you think you saw or heard (Whistler in Blade II), or that he had a twin brother that he never thought to mention while he was still on planet Earth. A twin brother like our Ken in New York. Mark, as you will remember, was the first film's killer-fallen-from-grace, enigmatically played by the always lovely Chow Yun-Fat. Shot to shit in the final battle, he died attempting to reunite the estranged Sung brothers. Clearly if you're putting together a sequel, you just HAVE to have Chow Yun-Fat on board. So Mark had a twin brother, a twin brother who proves just reckless enough to step into Mark's shoes if the situation is right. And it quickly becomes right. If you can live with this unlikely development then there is clear wisdom in the move, as despite sound work from Dean Shek, Ti Lung and Leslie Chung, it's Chow Yun-Fat's unforced stylistic cool that pretty much steals the second half of the film.

But this is all very well. The most surprising element of A Better Tomorrow II is not the overwrought emotions or the dodgy character revival, but the lack of the sort of action show-stoppers that characterised the first film. At least that's what I was thinking until about fifteen minutes from the end, when it became clear that this was a sneaky piece of audience misdirection on Woo's part, as he sends three heavily tooled-up good guys against about a hundred bad guys to unleash jaw-dropping violence on everything that gets in their way. As a slice of choreographed gunplay it actually outstrips anything in Part 1 and clearly points the way to the staggering climactic mayhem of The Killer and Hard Boiled. So if you're finding the build-up a bit of grind and the action not quite what you hoped for, do stick with it – the finale is pure, undiluted, old school John Woo, and absolutely worth waiting for. And if you're collecting influences that shaped the characters and look of Reservoir Dogs, then here's another one to add to the list.

sound and vision

My hopes were high here, given Hong Kong Legends' track record of fine transfers even of older films (the recently released Hapkido is a good example) and the substandard quality of the image on Optimum's rather optimistically named "Ultimate Edition" of A Better Tomorrow. The moment the film began my heart sank a little – A Better Tomorrow II initially has the same grubby look and the same boulder-sized grain. The difference here is that things do intermittently and noticeably improve, to the extent that it looks almost as if two separate prints have been sourced for the transfer. The framing is 1.78:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

The 5.1 soundtrack is largely front and centre with some minor surround work on music and effects. The principal advantage over the soundtrack on Optimum's DVD of Part 1 is that it's properly in sync the whole way through. There's also an English dub if you are so inclined.

extra features

OK, I let this ride on Hapkido and know that I shouldn't have, but I'm not going to here. When any DVD buyer sees the term 'Special Edition' or 'Collector's Edition' they have the right to expect a stonking good transfer of the film and the extra features to be numerous and/or high in quality, but in recent times there has been some seriously cheeky and even deceptive misuse of such terms. Tartan's re-release of Takashi Miike's Audition as a 'Collector's Edition', for example, primarily boasted a vastly improved picture and soundtrack, but given that both were so shockingly poor on the original release, all this did was to right a previous wrong. Optimum tried it on a bit with their 'Ultimate Edition' label for their last A Better Tomorrow release – the extra features weren't bad, the commentary (by guess who) was excellent, but the transfer was below par, and the room for improvement this suggests pours scorn on the use of the term 'ultimate'.

Hong Kong Legends appear to have become a bit too attached to the 'special edition' label, and while many of their earlier, 2-disc affairs richly deserved such status, many of their more recent, single-disc and commentary-free releases simply do not. But the term nonetheless continues to be plastered on the covers of DVDs that simply do not qualify for it, and to claim that a twenty minute interview with the producer, 3 trailers and a short textual essay somehow gives A Better Tomorrow II 'Special Collector's Edition' status is taking the piss. So if you're buying this disc then ignore the tall tale at the top of the front cover and do it for the film. This is NOT a special edition DVD by any criteria I'd call reasonable.

Anyway, to business. The Tsui Hark interview (22:21) is a little scattershot in content and structure, but provides some background on the process of getting the sequel up and running, and has the surprising revelation that the first film was nearly cancelled halfway through and the footage burned by the studio heads.

The Trailer Gallery contains the standard pairing of the newly created UK Promo (1:21), which trades on the film's influence on Tarantino, and the Original Trailer (3:08), which juxtaposes sentimental music with visual violence to quite amusing effect.

The Trilogy of Blood Animated Essay is a textual overview of the three Better Tomorrow films. By 'animated' they mean the text scrolls up and a couple of blood spots appear.

A Better Tomorrow 3 Preview (2:54) is a trailer for a film that was released 17 years ago, but presumably is on the way on UK DVD.

There are also trailers for a selection of other HKL releases, namely Heroes Shed No Tears, Bullet in the Head, Once a Thief, The Killer, Dreadnaught and Hapkido.

summary

Fans of John Woo's Heroic Bloodshed films will doubtless already have their orders in for this DVD release (it's actually out on 11th September), but those expecting the disc to live up to the promise of its self-proclaimed Special Collector's Edition status may well be in for a let down. The transfer varies in quality (though is pretty good at times) and the extra features do not amount to much. So it's all down to the film itself, which for the most part somewhat inevitably falls a little short of its predecessor, but whose gobsmacking climax alone will be enough to keep most genre fans happy.

A Better Tomorrow II
Ying hing boon sik II

Hong Kong 1987
100 mins
director
John Woo
starring
Dean Shek
Ti Lung
Leslie Cheung
Chow Yun-Fat
Emily Chu

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 mono
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles
English
extras .
Interview with Tsui Hark
Trailers
Animated essay
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
11 September 2006
review posted
31 August 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews