A remake of John Woo’s seminal Hong Kong classic (1986), A Better Tomorrow updates and relocates the action from a pre-handover Hong Kong to contemporary Busan where Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-moo), lives the good life, selling illegal arms together with his best friend, Lee Young-choon (Song Seung-hun). However, this ‘success’ is overshadowed by the fact that he was forced to leave behind his mother and younger brother, Chul (Kim Kang-w00) when defecting from North to South Korea some years earlier leading the pivotal plot conflict between two brothers, more or less intact from the original.
While there is no doubt that visually A Better Tomorrow is stunning, or that the action sequences are well choreographed and spectacular, it pales into comparison with John Woo’s original, which is almost the Holy Grail of the Hong Kong ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre of the 1980s. In addition at 125 minutes, the film was at least half an hour too long and the periods of lengthy exposition that punctured the action were to the detriment of overall narrative coherence and spectatorial engagement. As a fan of John Woo, I suspect that it was always going to be difficult for me to appreciate a remake of one of his most seminal works and I lost interest half way through, which did not help. And unlike other reviewers, I missed the melodramatic relationship between Sung Chi-Ho (Ti Lung) and Jackie (Emily Chu Bo-Yee) from the original, which gave the film ‘heart’ which the remake lacked.
I am not against remakes in principal, but this was not a patch on the original (which I believe was itself a remake 1967 Cantonese film, Story of a Discharged Prisoner). I missed the presence of Chow Yun-Fat and the flair and technical proficiency of John Woo – I am off to watch the ‘original’ again then.
Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik) is a small-time gangster, eking out a living by selling porn videos to teenagers in the small video shop he manages. Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a young Chinese woman who comes to Korea looking for her remaining relatives after her parents die. Failan agrees to a paper marriage with Kang-jae so that she can stay in Korea, after she discovers that her relatives have emigrated to Canada. Just as Kang-jae is about to make a deal to serve 10 years in prison on the behalf of a big-time gangster, he finds out that Failan has died. During his trip to pick up his wife’s ashes, Kang-jae discovers that Failan had fallen in love with him and changes his mind about going back to prison: a decision which can only led to tragedy.
This short synopsis makes Failan sound like a straightforward romantic melodrama, but in fact there is little that is straightforward about it with the ‘romance’ between Kang-jae and Failan unfolding through a series of flashbacks which fracture Kang-jae’s present journey to retrieve Failan’s possessions. Failan’s unrequited love for Kang-jae is told through letters to him that he discovers amongst her belongings.
However while Choi Min-sik’s is excellent, as always, in this role as a petty gangster whose downward spiral has almost robbed him of his humanity, Cecilia Cheung does not convince as the dying Failan who is meant to be the emotional core of the film. While I am aware that Failan has been seen by many critics as one of the best films of New Korean Cinema, I was unconvinced. As much as I appreciated the construction and aesthetics of the film, I found it lacking. I much preferred Director SONG’s later Maundy Thursday/우리들의 행복한 시간, in which the doomed relationship between the lovers is fully fleshed out and believable. Failan was like a beautiful piece of postmodern art, all surface and no substance. I just hope that the emotional core of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow/ 英雄本色 (1996) one of the best examples of ‘balletic bloodshed’ has been preserved in Director SONG’s recent remake ( 무적자: 2010).
Moon Yu-jung (Lee Na-young), a successful University Lecturer, attempts suicide for the third time. Jung Yun-soo (Gang Dong-won) is on death row for rape and murder. Neither wants to continue living as a result of events in their past. Yu-jung is traumatized as a result of a rape when she was 15 and Yun-su’s criminal path was predestined when his mother abandoned him and his brother when they were just children. The two meet when Yu-jung’s aunt, Sister Monica (Yun Yeo-jong), persuades her to accompany her when she goes to visit Yun-soo in prison. What transpires is a touching love story between two damaged people, whose love for each other reignites a desire to continue living, but can only end in death.
Unlike the conventional death row film, Director SONG”s 4th feature, Maundy Thursday is not so much concerned with critiquing the penal system as it is with illuminating social injustice in wider society and specifically class inequalities. Yun-soo ends up on death row because he cannot access health care for his girlfriend who suffers an ectopic pregnancy in a manner in which mirrors his younger brother’s death, who dies as a result of starvation compounded by a severe beating by a group of young thugs because of lack of access to medical care. In addition social injustice is compounded by familial neglect as embodied by the mother who neglects her child/children. Yu-jung’s mother blames her daughter for the rape, while Yun-soo’s mother is too wrapped up in her own problems to care for her children. The figure of the mother, here as elsewhere in contemporary South Korean cinema, is a metaphor for the nation, collapsing the personal and political onto one composite uncaring and unforgiving figure but whose affections are desired irrespective of her disregard for the needs of her children/people. This is highlighted by the fact that what brings the doomed couple together is the national anthem, as seeing Yu-jung sing it on television when he is a child, and with his brother, marks one of the truly happy times in Yun-soo’s life and this is the reason that Sister Monica takes Yu-jung with her when she visits him for the first time. It is therefore particularly poignant that as Yun-soo waits to die in the execution chamber, he sings the national anthem while Yu-jung listens on the other side of the one-way glass.
The title of the film, Maundy Thursday, refers to both the day on which Yu-jung visits Yun-soo, but is also the day on which Yun-soo is executed: a date marked in Christian calendar’s as the Last Supper, when Jesus dines with his 12 apostles for the last time before his execution. This religious subtext adds another level of meaning to the film’s diegesis and stresses the need for redemption and forgiveness for those cast aside by society and the state. Director Song constructs a multi-layered narrative of pain and suffering, love and hate, which never once degenerates into mawkishness. Both Gon Dong-won and Lee Na-young are excellent as the doomed lovers, while Kim So-hee – who plays Yu-jung’s mother – exhibits a considerable range of acting skills as she transforms from an unfeeling Matriarch to a vulnerable woman coming face to face with her mortality and finally recognizing her own sins (of denial/omission).
I thoroughly enjoyed Maundy Thursday despite the persistent chattering of some of the audience, and am looking forward to seeing more of Director Song’s films this month.
Director E J-Yong (February 2012)
Director Park Kwang-Su (March 2012)
Director Song Il-gon (April 2012)
Director Jeon Kye-soo (May 2012)
Director Lee Joon-ik (June 2012)
Director Lee Hyun-seung (July 2012)
Director Lee Yoon-ki (August 2012)
Director Jeon Kyu-hwan (September 2012)