ALTHOUGH on the surface it might give the impression of a standard gangster action film, "A Better Tomorrow" (1986) is imbued with the subtle - and blunt - voice of the "heroic bloodshed" style of influential director/screenwriter John Woo.
Woo is known to general audience in China for his recent epics "Red Cliff: Part 2" (2009) and "Reign of Assassins" (2010) and to those in the West for Hollywood blockbusters "Face/Off" (1997) and "Mission: Impossible II" (2000).
To cinema fans he is most closely associated with "heroic bloodshed" films of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which the classic "A Better Tomorrow" might best embody. Before Woo made epics in the traditional sense, with swords and maidens, he gave them his own contemporary spin.
So instead of knights, we have gangsters. Their kings, or crime-lords, might not wear crowns, but their family relations are just as complicated as Hamlet's. They might not be sand and swords. But the modern-day sword, the gun, is unsheathed with the same frequency and equally deadly impact.
To cut to the chase, something Woo did in these films with great effect, we have modern-day characters with the weight of drama and history typically associated with traditional epics.
Take the protagonist of "A Better Tomorrow," played by Ti Lung. He's a swaggering gangster. His downfall doesn't lead to his imprisonment, but to the death of his father and the resentment of his younger brother (Leslie Cheung).
He finds himself lost in the world, and an albatross to his cop brother, who can't get promoted because of his family ties. "I'm not a big brother anymore," he says.
The pathos is a world away from many gangster films of the 1980s, with a stone-faced Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, or a smirking Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The action though, is not. In fact, it typically outdoes them in the violence department. Blood does not just flow, it spews, giving the films a visceral and gritty quality. This never feels exploitative, however, as Woo undercuts this by adding classical music to these scenes, giving them a righteousness.
Selling a film to contemporary audience for "adhering to moral principles," as my dictionary defines "righteousness" likely is a non-starter, but everyone loves a good gun fight. Look past it, though, in heroic bloodshed films like "A Better Tomorrow" and see the epic hiding behind the comic.
'A Better Tomorrow' (1986)
Where to see: Websites Tudou and Youtube.
What to see: In Hong Kong, a money-counterfeiting gangster (Ti Lung) attempts to rebuild his life relationship with his police officer brother (Leslie Cheung) after he and his partner (Chow Yun-Fat) are sabotaged. It's ranked No. 2 of the 100 best Chinese motion pictures by the Hong Kong Film Awards.