This is another of Tsui Hark’s directorial efforts that I hadn’t seen before. I saw the first two A Better Tomorrow films many years ago at the Seattle Art Museum, of all places, with director John Woo in attendance. I don’t remember much about the films, and while I find Woo interesting enough to have seen many of his movies, I’ve never re-watched any of them. It’s possible that I’d like his bullet ballets better now, because I think one difficulty I’ve had with Woo is that he mostly makes male melodramas, especially in his Hong Kong heroic bloodshed phase. I’ve had problems with the melodrama genre in the past, but I’ve learned to appreciate it more as I’ve gotten older, at least when it comes to the classic women’s weepies. That all said, Tsui’s A Better Tomorrow III is very much an action melodrama, and I had some problems with the melodramatic aspect of it too.
ABT3 is largely set in Vietnam starting in 1974 as the Vietcong are about to take over. Tsui was raised in Saigon until age 14, circa 1965, so he has a personal connection to this aspect of the film, and it shows. For an American audience, it’s fascinating to see the Vietnamese war from the perspective of outsiders observing the conflict, without the wounded sense that American film-makers tend to bring. Tsui’s Chinese nationalism pervades the film, and in fact a lot of commentators interpret it as his comment both on the Tienanmen Massacre (lots of scenes of street protests, and a confrontation with a tank at the climax) and on the impending handover of Hong Kong, which is both explicitly discussed by the Chinese characters in the film and hovers over the images of a country taken over by communists. John Woo had apparently intended to set his own version of ABT3 in Vietnam, but after he had a falling out with Tsui, he turned that script into Bullet in the Head, which is possibly his best film and similarly comments on current events in Hong Kong.
Tsui’s Chinese nationalism also comes out in the way the film examines the Chinese involvement in Vietnam. Mark Gor (Chow Yun Fat) heads to Vietnam to bail his cousin Cheung Chih Mun (Tony Leung Ka Fai) out of prison and help him convince his uncle that it’s time to pull out of the increasingly dangerous Saigon, where he has run a medicine shop for over twenty years, and return to Hong Kong. It’s not easy to convince the uncle to leave, and Mark comments on how Chinese businessmen are so personally invested in their business that they don’t want to give it up even when their lives are at stake. Mark and Mun need to raise cash for the move, and their ability to pull off a black market arms deal depends on the connections of the mysterious Chow Ying Kit (Anita Mui), who has already helped Mark escape the extortionate airport Customs agents for reasons that aren’t clear. When they learn that Kit has connections to the Chinese underworld in Vietnam, they appeal to their shared ethnic identity to convince her to help them out.
But while Tsui is focused on the Chinese identity, he populates the film with a complex set of conflicting and collaborating factions that’s reminiscent of the chaotic welter of contending forces in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain or, really, any of his other films. First, we have Mark and his family, but then we also have the other Chinese in Vietnam, who have shared business interests but also don’t want anybody else horning in on their business, even other Chinese. There are at least two rogue factions of the South Vietnamese military, most predominantly the officer, Bond, with whom the black market deal is first attempted, but also the unnamed officer who comes to rescue Kit when the deal falls apart. There’s also Pat, who is a young Vietnamese man who was separated from his parents and taken in by Mark’s uncle. When his Chinese protector returns to Hong Kong, Pat joins the South Vietnamese army, but when Mark and Mun return to Saigon, Pat helps them against Bond and other members of his corrupt military faction. Then there are the Vietcong, who are mostly only seen in the background, although at various moments in the film their agents intervene in the action, and in the end they swarm the city in an iconic portrayal of the fall of Saigon. Finally there’s Kit’s old gangster boyfriend, Ho Cheung-Ching, who is has been gone for three years when we learn about him, but who returns to Hong Kong in the second half of the film. Ho is more or less a villain, but a typically ambiguous one. In one very powerful scene as he and Kit return to a Saigon as residents are trying to flee the victorious Vietcong, he says it reminds him of 1945 when the Japanese were retreating from Indochina and his Japanese businessman father was killed by Cambodian partisans in Phnom Penh. Almost as an afterthought he says he’s been pretending so long to be Chinese that he’d forgotten he was born Japanese. That little story creates a fascinating resonance with many different aspects of A Better Tomorrow III.
The complexity of this political and social backdrop to the story is unfortunately undermined to some extent by the romantic/melodramatic thread of the story, unless the real problem is the cheesy synth soundtrack. Mark falls for Kit on first sight, which is in the very first scene of the film. It’s implied, but only covertly, that the feeling is mutual and that that’s why Kit rescues Mark from being fleeced and beaten by airport Customs. When Mark’s cousin, Mun, meets Kit, he too falls for her. After the first extended gun battle of the film, in which the three save each others’ lives, we get what felt to me like an egregiously inappropriate romantic shopping montage. The shift in tones, suffice it to say, did not work for me. Quickly the romantic triangle becomes the usual series of misunderstanding, self-sacrifice, pretend-indifference, and betrayal. It feels rote to me, but it could be I just don’t have any interest in these formulas, while the rote action formulas are A-okay. My other thought about why it doesn’t work is that Kit is such a mysterious character that her stakes in the triangle are unclear and thus unconvincing. If she’s being initially aloof because of her history with Ho, that isn’t communicated very well. Things actually get more interesting when Ho shows up and creates antagonism with all three points of the triangle.
ABT3’s main claim to fame is probably the way Tsui uses Kit’s character to subvert Woo’s code of honorable machismo. It has been a constant theme in the Tsui Hark films I’ve already written about that he is interested in powerful female characters, and Kit is a great addition to the pantheon. Here it’s revealed that the super-macho Mark of the first two films learned everything he knew about being a bad-ass from a woman. Kit shows him how to wear mirror shades, gives him his iconic black trenchcoat, and teaches him how to shoot a gun. She also inspires him to tragic love, which is a feeling that’s reserved for fellow men in Woo’s films. The big problem with Kit’s character, as I mentioned before, is that we really don’t know much about her motives, although maybe that’s just part of the character type of the enigmatic killer. What seriously weakens any claims this film has to a feminist perspective, however, is that Kit is the only female character of any substance, with only Mark’s other cousin, Ling, and two Vietcong bomb-throwers (whom Mark and Mun innocently flirt with) getting any screen time to speak of. This film is more like Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind than, say, Peking Opera Blues, that way.
It took me two viewings to really get a grasp on the main thing that appeals to me about the film, which is the complicated political and social background and the Chinese perspective on the tribulations of Asia. The thing that appealed to me immediately was Tsui’s usual visual stylishness and inventiveness, as he keeps giving us new angles on even the most standard business. He had shown an ability to give the romantic triangle a fresh treatment in Shanghai Blues, so I’m not sure how he flubbed it this time. My initial suspicion was that maybe he tossed this film out to make a quick buck and didn’t spend enough time on it. However, the careful layering of the political situation may indicate that that’s where his true interest was on this project, along with the jab at Woo’s male-oriented perspective.