Renowned director Park Chan-wook, known for the acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, first pursued a career as a film critic. We are pleased to present Park’s reviews of A Better Tomorrow 3 and Days of Being Wild, in conjunction with the M+ Cinema programme, Devil in the Details: The Cinema of Park Chan-wook. Park’s reviews offer a captivating glimpse into his perspective on Hong Kong cinema.
Having produced A Better Tomorrow and its sequel, Tsui Hark took on the director’s role for the series’ third instalment and created a historical film that defied all imagination. Following the departures of original director John Woo as well as stars Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung, Tsui used the heroic fantasy that was almost completed in the first two films for a completely different purpose. He may have anticipated A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon to be a commercial failure or be panned by the masses, but he clearly did not expect that even critics and intellectuals would be blind to the connotations of this labour of love, which presents his personality and abilities in a truly unique way.
In A Better Tomorrow III, Tsui uses Chinese history and metaphors to satirise the political reality of the time in an attempt to draw simple conclusions. As such, audiences must first be aware of this contextual information in order to fully understand the director and this unique film. The films Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues can help with this understanding. These two films show us that historical dramas can reconstruct history for introspection and reflection and can also use the past as a metaphorical expression of the present. A Better Tomorrow III posits another purpose for the historical drama, which is to use historical references to illustrate a future that is obvious but yet to happen. In this sense, it can be said to be a futuristic film.
Tsui saw the unification of Vietnam in 1974 and the ensuing exodus of anti-Communist ethnic Chinese from the country as a stark contrast to the flight of Hong Kong’s middle class prior to the city’s handover in 1997. It’s for this reason that he sets A Better Tomorrow III in the ‘here and now’. In this prequel of A Better Tomorrow, Mark (Chow Yun-fat) has no money or fame and is not even a rookie gangster, let alone a hero. His father disappears in China while his uncle is an ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, like the ‘acanthopanax wine in a brandy bottle.’ Mark and his cousin venture back to Hong Kong but are soon kicked out by a Japanese-led gang. They then pretend to go to Canada and Taiwan but actually return to Vietnam. Simply put, they become wandering refugees who no one would take in. Of course, the film ends with the two of them returning to Hong Kong safely, but Mark’s future has already been determined in the series’ earlier instalment. He becomes a member of a criminal organisation, is involved in a counterfeiting operation, and dies tragically. We even know that his twin brother moved to the United States. Mark’s destiny can be compared to the fate of Hong Kong, which was already known before its handover to China. It’s also worth noting that Tsui, who was born in Vietnam, came to Hong Kong with his parents to escape the war and spent his teenage years in the US. In this sense, the A Better Tomorrow trilogy can be regarded as a reflection of his personal immigration journey. Tsui concludes the third instalment on a firm and confident note. When the young Vietnamese soldier Pat (Cheng Wai-lun) decides not to board the helicopter but instead stay in Saigon under the rule of the Viet Minh, the reason is uttered loudly: he wants to find his lost parents.
The heroic fantasy of the first film turns into a comic structure of clones in the second instalment and ends up as a tale of the historical reality of refugees in the third film. Mark is never able to reveal his trademark relaxed smile during the gunfights and must keep wandering in a strange and foreign land. Even the elements of the ‘Hong Kong Noir’, coined by Japanese film critics in the mid-1980s, can barely be found. The sometimes graceful, sometimes spectacular techniques used in the slow-motion gunfights that once excited many young people now serve a different purpose. Combining the steady rhythm of Chinese films with the unique dynamics of gangster movies, this technique was originally achieved by deleting frames at fixed intervals and extending the remaining frames. However, A Better Tomorrow III differs from the first two films in that it predominantly adopts a simple and consistent method to extend frames. When the protagonist is dumped into a desolate ruin, his helpless actions are slowed down against music that fails to reach an emotional climax. Not only is the gunfight not at all dramatic, but the characters’ slow movements are filled with a sense of weakness and loneliness instead of grace due to the emptiness of their actions. In the first half of the movie, Mark initially wanted to help his uncle escape to Hong Kong, but his uncle is instead killed in a fight. His uncle’s killer is then shot dead by a soldier, making it impossible for Mark to seek vengeance. Mark also fails to save the heroine. All the bullets and bloodshed of this grand operation turn out to be unnecessary or lead only to failure. Ultimately, this is Tsui’s fatalistic nihilism.
It is no exaggeration to describe this film as Tsui’s book of proverbs; all the characters quote famous sayings throughout the movie. The film also cleverly uses increasingly complex music, wide-angle shots, and low angles. These elements can be seen in the helicopter take-off scene at the end, which has an editing rhythm that reaches its climax in 140 seconds (it’s also worth noting that the film begins with an arrival in Vietnam and ends with a departure from the country). Perhaps future generations may come to consider A Better Tomorrow III as the best instalment of the series.
Despite being totally different from its predecessors, A Better Tomorrow III is still a sequel. For this reason, the director shows fans the process of constructing Mark. For example, it is revealed that Mark’s signature black trench coat and round sunglasses are gifts from his lover Chow Ying-kit (Anita Mui). In fact, Mark’s ability to hit his targets without aiming, his expressionless manner of shooting wildly with two pistols, and even his foolish willingness to do anything for love are all learned from Chow Ying-kit.
This review was originally published in The Discreet Charm of Watching Movies, a collection of film reviews written by Park Chan-wook, in 1994. The English-language version of this text was translated from Korean by Teng Yujung and edited by Dorothy So.
All images: Still from Tsui Hark's A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989). Photo: Courtesy of Fortune Star Media Limited