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#57. A Better Tomorrow & #58. The Killer - Review

The Killer film posterA Better Tomorrow is melodrama in its purest, most violent exemplification. Far from being a great film, John Woo’s tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law reeks of the 1980’s, but that is probably why I loved it so much. It has heart like very few action movies have the nerve to show. Underneath all the blood and slow-motion shootouts, is a love story between two best friends (Chow Yun-Fat and Lung Ti) willing to kill and die for each other, and it is their plot line that is most intriguing. These men are so completely devoted to each other, have such affection for one another, that although not homosexual, these vicious gangsters are very much in love.

A brother’s love does not come so easy it seems. With family comes history and baggage. Unlike friends, brothers do not have the privilege of choice. A blood tie cannot be undone, no matter how much hate and judgment poisons the relationship. Themes of responsibility to family and friend alike run on the surface of this film, and are successful at making its point.

Woo’s 1989 film The Killer again puts Chow Yun-Fat in the shoes of Ah Jong, a charismatic and sincere murderer. Covering many of the same beats as Tomorrow, The Killer abandons the familiar family scenario and just focuses on the friendship between an assassin and the detective ordered to bring him down. What I find so fascinating about both of Woo’s films is the director’s ability to successfully construct his brutal protagonists in such a way as to inspire empathy in the audience. In The Killer, we watch Jong blind a woman, put a bullet in the forehead of a politician with a sniper rifle, and callously murder countless henchmen on both sides of the law, and still we not only care for him but actually root for him. “Woo also picks up on recent Hollywood films which feature male protagonists who are both violent and sensitive, who perform their own contradictions, and who struggle with themselves as much as with evil.” (Hanke, 39) After blinding the lounge singer with the muzzle of his revolver, Jong seeks the young girl out and promises to pay for a surgery to repair her eyesight; a selfless act inspired by the killer’s own conscience. This conscience it seems is a universal trait in all of the protagonists in Woo’s Hong Kong films that I have seen. Chow Yun-Fat’s sensitivity, loyalty, and devotion is beautifully contrasted by Woo’s excessive violence. The bullets fly, blood splatters, and bodies fall, but Woo sets-up each highly choreographed shootout with a scene of intense drama, usually between two friends trying to remain faithful to each other, so when the guns go off the viewer is completely invested in the protagonist’s survival and intentions.

A Better Tomorrow film posterIt is this steadfast devotion between friends that may easily be construed as homosexual or even erotic. Masculinity and calm-bravery are motifs in all of Woo’s films. When they are combined with the camaraderie usually only found on a battlefield or a gangster film, the audience can easily misinterpret the emotions on screen. While male relationships in western cinema rarely take the time to investigate the emotions behind the couplings on screen, Woo’s protagonists are distinctly different. Passionate and sentimental, Woo’s leading men wear their heart on their sleeves. Jillian Sandell goes discusses this difference in masculinity in her essay The Specatacle of Male Intimacy in the Films of John Woo: “Woo’s films, by contrast, suggest a cultural fantasy about gender and sexuality in which intimacy is valorized and celebrated as an important and necessary aspect to all relationships – both sexual and platonic.” (24)

Although I am ignorant to Woo’s American made films, I would doubtful of their allegorical and emotionally masculine hybridism between the two cultures within the films. While women only served to advance the plot in both A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, most American action blockbusters require an equally fleshed out female protagonist. This leading lady would most certainly distract and take away from the protagonist’s growing relationship with his comrades on screen. I understand the differences in the two cultures, but I must admit I do find this lack of vulnerability in American heroes disappointing. I am excited to study more John Woo’s earlier Hong Kong films, his unique style of contrasting conflicted characters and their emotionally complicated relationships with intense and over-the-top action sequences is fascinating. 

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