Not too many places outside of Hollywood make Hollywood movies. The British do a few, the French make comedies sufficiently like American ones to get remade in English, Japanese samurai movies used to be rather similar to American Westerns (but now both genres are dead). That's about it, except for Hong Kong. Hong Kong makes action/adventure films that fit very well into the Hollywood mold, except, of course, that the characters all tend to be Chinese. Otherwise, you could easily be seeing the product of Warner Brothers or, more plausibly, New World Cinema.
They do have their own local twists. The culture they come from is different, and some of that inevitably shows up in Hong Kong films. They don't have quite the budget American studios have, so some of the technical aspects of their films are a little rougher. By and large, the films are set in Hong Kong or China, too, which aren't the most popular locales for Hollywood films. None the less, the pacing of the films, the subject matter, their overall style are very familiar. Hong Kong is thus in a good position to steal away a little of the worldwide box office appeal of American films.
A Better Tomorrow and its two sequels are cases in point. These are cop films, very much like the torrent of cop films flowing out of Hollywood. A Better Tomorrow is a hybrid of two old formulae: the brothers/friends who grow up to be on different sides of the law, and the criminal tries to go straight despite the urgings of his old buddies. The central figure in A Better Tomorrow, played by Ti Lung, is a gangster involved in counterfeiting. His brother has just joined the police force, and, early in the film, he's caught and sent to jail. When he gets out, he wants to reform, but no one will believe him. And, in best Hollywood tradition, all problems are solved by shooting lots and lots of people.
There is a typically Chinese concern for family in A Better Tomorrow not felt so strongly in American films. The greatest desire of the central character is to reconcile with his brother. And loyalty is also an important theme, more so than in American action pictures. Ti Lung's buddy is being squeezed out of the gang, and treated very badly, and only by rejoining the gang can the hero help him. But these themes are not played so strongly or with such an exclusively Chinese tone as to make the film seem particularly foreign to American audiences.
What does make it foreign is the atrocious subtitling. A Better Tomorrow may have had the worst subtitling job I've ever seen. It appeared to be done by someone with the mistaken belief that he knows English. The subtitles veered from unintentionally funny to incomprehensible.
That's not all that's wrong with A Better Tomorrow. It sets itself up to be judged by the same standards as American films, and, by those standards, it comes up short. The script, by John Woo, Chan Hing Kai, and Leung Suk Wah, is rambling and untidy. It takes a while to get down to business. And the film is technically inferior to a typical American production. The cinematography is uninspired, at best, and lots of small details of special effects, sound editing, and other background issues are sloppy. A single tune is played relentlessly on the score.
On the other hand, the acting is excellent. Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-fatt, and Ti Lung instill a sense of reality and likability into their characters. One car chase is like another, one gunfight is like another, so action films really have to rely on their characters to distinguish themselves from the pack. The leading actors in A Better Tomorrow all have the kind of charisma and style necessary to make their film stand out. And director Woo handles the action scenes pretty well.
The first sequel, A Better Tomorrow II, is similar in tone. Actually, I liked it better. The subtitling had improved, there was more action, and everything moved faster. A dubious plot trick necessitated by the ending of the first film was given no more respect than it deserved, showing that the filmmakers weren't deluded about what sort of film they were making. It was, at its heart, more of the same, just as Lethal Weapon II was more of the same - a skillful repetition of the elements of the original that appealed to audiences. Being able to recreate the atmosphere in a sequel is actually quite tricky, and writer Tsui Hark and co-writer and director John Woo pulled it off very well. This film also suffers from some of the original's flaws. It rambles, with an unnecessary side-trip to New York City, in this case. It isn't especially sensible. And it's technically a bit rough.
The third film, A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon, is quite different than its predecessors. Set earlier than the first two films, it deals with one of the main characters from the first film attempting to help some friends get out of Saigon before the Communist takeover. Romance plays a much larger role in this film, and it's technically superior to the first two. But there's less action, and only one of the characters who made the earlier films interesting is here. Actually, it's really not even the same character, just the same actor playing a similar character with the same name. There's nothing in the third film to make us believe that he has anything in common with the character in the earlier films. New writers Tai Fu-Ho and Leung Yiu-Ming do not capture the aura of the first film, nor does Tsui Hark, taking over as director. On the whole, A Better Tomorrow III is the least interesting of these films, even though it is the most polished.
A Better Tomorrow I, II, and III are interesting, if for no other reason, as rare instances of other nations trying to beat Hollywood at its own game. Certainly, within Hong Kong, they succeeded, as all three films were very popular there. But somehow I doubt if they will significantly crack the international markets, much less the highly lucrative U.S. market. They lack the craft of American commercial films, though the artistic level is about the same. Which is not necessarily a compliment. Lovers of action films will probably get a kick out of them, wherever they live and whatever language they speak. But Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger need not stay awake fretting over a Peril From the East. Superficial commercial films from Hong Kong don't beat superficial commercial films from U.S. Yet.
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