Years ago, Kim Hyeok (Ju Jin Mo) escaped from North to South Korea, leaving his behind his beloved younger brother, Kim Cheol (Kim Kang Woo). Now Hyeok is a big time gangster alongside his sharp-dressed, toothpick-chewing compadre, Yeung Choon (Song Seung Heon), but has never stopped searching for Cheol. When Hyeok finally finds his brother at a detention centre for illegal immigrants, he is dismayed to discover Cheol hates him for abandoning their family. Hyeok and Yeung Choon live by a code of honour disgarded by ambitious gangster-on-the-make, Tae Min (Jo Han Sun), who betrays the former during a gun-running operation in South East Asia. Hyeok survives the ensuing shootout but is arrested and jailed. Ever-loyal, Yeung Choon takes revenge but pays a heavy price. Three years on, Hyeok leaves prison determined to go straight but Cheol, who has become a top crime-busting cop, is just as eager to put him back behind bars.
If John Woo’s original heroic bloodshed masterpiece A Better Tomorrow (1986) was the poster child for arguably the brightest and boldest era in Hong Kong filmmaking, then this glossy remake - which credits Woo as executive producer - is tantamount to a flag-pole heralding South Korea as the new kings of Asian cinema. Which might be reason enough for die-hard HK film fans to resent this new incarnation, though most were willing to admit Korean director Song Hae Sung steered the familiar material in an interesting new direction. Some mainstream reviewers went so far as to suggest the remake was a more grounded, more cohesive piece of drama than Woo’s original, though it is worth noting this was not borne out at the box office.
The remake’s cleverest idea is placing the plot in a fresh political context with the brothers on opposite sides of the Korean divide. Known for his grim psychological dramas, Song Hae Sung does a fair job exploring the tensions between characters yet narrows its scope claustrophobically onto feelings of bitterness and resentment, leaving no sense of a world beyond the confines of the gangster ethos. Missing in action is the subplot wherein the older brother is welcomed into a garage run by fellow ex-cons looking to go straight. John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow adapted a wu xia (swordplay) story into a modern setting, retaining the genre’s schizophrenic mood shifts from ebullient fun to operatic tragedy and transplanting its sense of swashbuckling chivalry into a hitherto amoral context. His antiheroes were indeed fighting for a better tomorrow. By contrast, in the remake that title becomes bitterly ironic. The tone is far darker, fatalistic rather than romantic with the performances grim and intense, lacking the debonair charm of the original cast. Hae Sung ditches the comedy and the love story, makes the action less stylised and more visceral. Action fans may have loathed the romantic subplot but it was a crucial aspect of the original, marking Kit’s (Leslie Cheung) salvation and the reason his brother (Ti Lung) made so many sacrifices. There is no sense of that here. Just a well of deep, pitiless tragedy.
What we have is an Asian gangster film perhaps more palatable to mainstream tastes. Gritty, uncompromising, free of all those bothersome Eastern eccentricities. Impassioned certainly, but not much fun to watch. A Better Tomorrow 2010 belongs to the current Korean craze for angst-ridden young men brooding beneath designer haircuts. The gunplay is efficient if unspectacular. On the one hand Hae Sung made a smart move not emulating Woo’s hyper-balletic style, but none of the new set-pieces prove as memorable. The film mounts its own subdued version of the original’s most famous shootout as Yeung Choon avenges his brother’s betrayal. No slow-motion, it is all over in a flash and leaves little emotional impact. The shadow of the peerless Chow Yun-Fat looms large over luckless Song Seung Heon, who gives it his best shot but comes across a poor facsimile. One area where the film outdoes its predecessor is expanding the relationship between the Kim brothers and fatherly policeman Lieutenant Park (Lee Kyeong Yeong), although he is strangely A.W.O.L. throughout the gruelling climax. While there is weight to the drama the film remains drastically overlong, its shift in style signalled by trading the original’s catchy, ebullient theme music for an achingly sincere soul ballad that doesn’t half go on.