A Better Tomorrow

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A Better Tomorrow
Theatrical release poster
MandarinYīng Xióng Běn Sè
CantoneseJing1 hung4 bun2 sik1
Directed byJohn Woo
Screenplay by
  • John Woo
  • Chan Hing-kai
  • Leung Suk-wah
Produced byTsui Hark
CinematographyWong Wing-hang
Edited byKam Ma
Music byJoseph Koo
Distributed byCinema City & Films Co.
Fortune Star Media Limited.
Release date
  • 2 August 1986 (1986-08-02)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryHong Kong
Box officeHK$34.7 million[1] (US$4.8 million)[2]

A Better Tomorrow (Chinese: 英雄本色; Jyutping: Jing1 hung4 bun2 sik1; lit. 'True Colors of a Hero') is a 1986 Hong Kong action film[3] directed by John Woo and starring Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat.[4] The film had a profound influence on Hong Kong action cinema, and has been recognised as a landmark film credited with setting the template for the heroic bloodshed genre,[5] with considerable influence on both the Hong Kong film industry and Hollywood.[6]

Produced with a tight budget and released with virtually no advertising, A Better Tomorrow broke Hong Kong's box office record and went on to become a blockbuster in Asia. The film is highly regarded, ranking #2 in the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures. Its success led to the sequels A Better Tomorrow II, also directed by Woo, and A Better Tomorrow 3: Love & Death in Saigon, a prequel directed by Tsui Hark.

The film was Chow Yun-fat's breakout role and launched him as one of the top superstars in the Hong Kong film industry. Chow's character "Mark Lee" has been imitated by many fans even decades after the film's release.[7] Following this film, Chow went on to make several more notable films with Woo.


Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Lung) works for the Triad, managing a lucrative printing and distributing operation that produces counterfeit American bank notes. Ho is a respected member of the organization, entrusted with the most important transactions. Mark Lee (Chow Yun-Fat)[8] is his best friend, bodyguard, and business partner. The prologue follows a day in the life of Ho and Mark as they watch a fresh batch of counterfeit notes being printed and meet with foreign clients to trade their product for counterfeit Chinese bank notes.

Ho is close to his younger brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), who has just graduated high school and is currently training to join the police. Ho hides his criminal life from his brother and encourages Kit's career choice, despite it putting them on opposite sides of the law. Ho's ailing father is aware of Ho's criminal activities and pleads for him to lead a life free from crime. Ho agrees, deciding that he will retire from the Triad after his next deal in Taiwan. Shing (Waise Lee), a low ranking member, is sent along after Ho agrees to mentor him. The deal turns out to be an ambush by the Taiwanese triads. A shootout ensues in which Ho and Shing flee into a sewage tunnel entrance, pursued by local law enforcement. Sung tells Shing to run, and surrenders to the police in order to buy time for him to escape. Ho is then sentenced to three years in prison.

After learning of the botched deal, a Triad enforcer attempts to kidnap Ho's father as leverage to ensure Ho's silence in prison; Ho's father is fatally stabbed before Kit and his girlfriend Jackie manage to subdue his attacker. With his dying breath, he pleads Kit to forgive his brother for his criminal actions. Kit is enraged and blames Ho for their father's death. Mark travels to Taiwan to get answers from the head of the Taiwanese triad and kills the gangster who planned the ambush and his bodyguards as they are dining in a restaurant in a brutal gunfight. However, Mark is injured by two shots to his right leg, leaving him crippled and in need of a leg brace to walk.

Three years pass, and Ho is released from prison. As he walks out, he is approached by an unnamed policeman (played by director John Woo), who offers to take him back to headquarters so he can rejoin his old organization. However, Ho, remorseful of his actions and determined to start a new life, turns down the offer and instead gets a job driving for a taxi company, run by another ex-con named Ken. Ho spots Mark during one of his shifts; in contrast to the contents of Mark's optimistic letters to him in prison, he discovers that Mark is now a broken man after Shing stripped him of his position in the family and cast him aside in his rise to power. During an emotional reunion, Mark urges Ho to confront Shing, wanting to take back their old positions in the Triad, but Ho refuses.

Ho seeks out Kit, now a police officer, hoping to reconcile with his brother, but is harshly rebuffed by Kit despite the pleas of Jackie, who believes the two should reconcile in order to carry out their father's final wishes. However, Kit sees Ho as a criminal and the one solely responsible for their father's death and holds strong in his anger. Furthermore, Kit is also resentful of the fact that his familial tie to Ho is preventing him from professional advancement. In an effort to prove himself to his superiors and further distance himself from his brother's criminal past, Kit becomes obsessed with bringing down Shing, despite Ho's warnings to stay away from the dangerous case.

Shing, hearing of Ho's return to Hong Kong, tries to persuade him to return and help expand the Triad into drug trafficking. When Ho again refuses, Shing has his men raid the taxi company, orders Mark to be beaten near to death, and lures Kit into a trap that leaves him hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Ho is dismayed but is still hesitant to take action, but an emotional speech by Mark finally persuades him to start fighting back so they can regain their honor. Concurrently, Shing, eager to get rid of Ho for good, sets up Yie, the head of the Triad, by lying about Ho wanting to make peace and then shooting him dead; the witnesses are told to lie to the police that Ho was the shooter.

Mark steals a computer tape containing printing plate data from the counterfeiting business and shoots his way out of the building, with Ho arriving on a motorbike to rescue him. The film then reveals that it was Shing who set up the ambush three years ago that got Ho arrested. Ho and Mark use the tape to blackmail Shing in exchange for money and an escape boat. However, Ho ensures that the tape is passed to Kit as proof of Shing's crimes. Using Shing as a hostage, Ho and Mark take the money to a pier, where Shing's men await. There, Ho implores Mark to escape by himself in the boat. Mark accepts, albeit with hesitation.

After Mark's departure, Kit arrives on the scene intending to make an arrest, but Shing's men take him hostage. A deal is made to exchange Shing for Kit, but the trade spirals into a standoff that devolves into a frenzied shootout. Ho and Kit are forced to ally themselves against Shing's men, but are overwhelmed and wounded. Mark, hearing the sounds of the ongoing hostilities, realises that Ho and Kit are being overrun, and returns guns blazing. Ho, Kit and Mark kill a majority of Shing's henchmen, but not without injury. During a lull in the gunfight, Ho attempts to make peace with Kit, but is rebuffed again. Mark is impassioned by Kit's words and berates him, telling him that Ho's present actions have atoned for whatever wrongdoings he had done in the past. However, during this emotional moment, Mark is shot in the back and killed by Shing.

As the police approach, Shing mocks Ho, who has run out of ammunition. He ridicules him and his brother, proclaiming that once he enters police custody, his money and power will ensure his swift release. Kit, finally seeing eye to eye with his brother, hands Ho his revolver, with which Ho shoots Shing dead. Dazed, Kit stands as he watches Shing's body fall to the ground, unsure of what to do next. Unexpectedly, Ho handcuffs himself to Kit, expressing his desire for redemption and his admiration that Kit always walked the right path. The film ends with the reconciled brothers walking together towards the gathered crowd of police.


Theme song[edit]

The film's theme song is "In the Sentimental Past" (當年情), performed by lead Leslie Cheung, composed and arranged by Joseph Koo and written by Wong Jim.

Box office[edit]

A Better Tomorrow grossed $34,651,324 HKD at the Hong Kong box office.[1]

Musical references[edit]

  • During the nightclub scene, the song being played in the background (幾許風雨, Gei2 heoi2 fung1 jyu5) is the Cantonese version of a classic South Korean song called 'Hee Na Ree'(희나리) sung originally by Goo Chang-mo(ko:구창모) in 1985. The Cantonese version in the movie was sung by Roman Tam, considered the "godfather" of the musical genre Cantopop.
  • In the scene where Kit rushes Jackie to a music recital, the violinist playing before Jackie plays the theme song of the movie.
  • Also heard in the soundtrack is "Sparrowfall 1", a track from Brian Eno's 1978 album, Music for Films.
  • The film also contains "Birdy's Theme" (from the film Birdy) by Peter Gabriel incorporated into the soundtrack.
  • In the scene where Ho meets Jackie back stage of the music recital to tell her he is leaving, the children's choir is singing Tomorrow will be Better (明天会更好/明天會更好), written by Lo Ta-yu. This is likely the origin of the film's English title.

Film references[edit]

  • Woo's film was partially inspired by the 1967 Lung Kong film 英雄本色 (pinyin Yīngxióng běnsè) which has the same Chinese name but a different English name: Story of a Discharged Prisoner, which is #39 on the Hong Kong Film Awards list of the Top 100 Chinese Films.[9]
  • The film was also partially inspired by The Brothers, a 1979 Hong Kong crime film, plot elements of which were reimagined for A Better Tomorrow.[10] The Brothers had a similar plot about two brothers on opposing sides of the law, the elder brother a mobster and the younger brother a cop.[11] In turn, The Brothers was a remake of Deewaar (1975), a hit Indian crime drama written by Salim–Javed.[12][10]
  • Chow Yun-fat's entrance to the restaurant before the shoot-out is John Woo's homage to Mean Streets.
  • The scene in which Mark Lee tells the story of being forced to drink urine is apparently based on a real incident involving Chow Yun-fat and director Ringo Lam, according to Bey Logan on the DVD commentary. This scene was recreated in Woo's Bullet in the Head.

Cultural impact[edit]

  • After the film, teenage boys in Hong Kong wore long dusters in emulation of Chow's character even though the climate was sub-tropical. In fact, in colloquial Cantonese, trench coats are called "Mark Gor Lau" (literally, Brother Mark's coat).
  • The Wu-Tang Clan has a song named after the film on their 1997 album Wu-Tang Forever.
  • The Wu-Tang Clan 20th anniversary album also shares the name A Better Tomorrow.
  • The anime series Cowboy Bebop has many references to the film series, including the last fight between Spike and Vicious in the episode "The Real Folk Blues (Part 2)" which parallels the final shoot out in "A Better Tomorrow 2".
  • The character Mr. Chang from the Black Lagoon is closely patterned after Chow's character Mark in both visual design and characterisation.
  • Chow wore Alain Delon sunglasses in the movie. After the movie, Hong Kong was sold out of Alain Delon's sunglasses. French star Alain Delon sent Chow a personal thank you note.
  • In 2009, Empire Magazine named it #20 in a poll of the 20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably)
  • The 1994 Bollywood film Aatish: Feel the Fire (1994), directed by Sanjay Gupta, was an unofficial remake combining elements of both the Bollywood classic Deewaar (1975)[13] and John Woo's A Better Tomorrow.[14] The film starred Sanjay Dutt, Atul Agnihotri, Aditya Pancholi and Shakti Kapoor.
  • In September 2010, prolific Korean filmmaker Song Hae-Sung released Mujeogja (Invincible), which was an official Korean language remake of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow. It opened to positive response at the Korean box-office. John Woo and Terence Chang also serve as Executive Producers for Mujeogja; which was a joint production between South Korea, Japan and China.
  • The theme song was covered in 2016 by Louis Koo and Leo Ku in memoriam of Cheung Kwok-wing.


A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Aatish (1994)
A Better Tomorrow (2010)
A Better Tomorrow 2018 (2018)
John Woo Sanjay Gupta Song Hae-sung Ding Sheng

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "A Better Tomorrow (1986)". HKMDB. Retrieved 20 March 2007.
  2. ^ "PACIFIC Exchange Rate Service (7.8033 HKD per USD)" (PDF). UBC Sauder School of Business. University of British Columbia. 1986. p. 3. Retrieved 21 November 2017.
  3. ^ "3: A Better Tomorrow - 10 Action Films That Changed Everything". HowStuffWorks. 26 May 2015.
  4. ^ Crow, Jonathan. "A Better Tomorrow (1986)". Allmovie. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  5. ^ Morton, Lisa (2001). The Cinema of Tsui Hark. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-0990-8.
  6. ^ Volodzko, David (13 June 2015). "30 Years Later, This Chinese Film Still Echoes in Hollywood". The Diplomat.
  7. ^ "周潤發憑《英雄本色》 奠定香港影壇地位". Sing Tao Daily. Archived from the original on 10 November 2014. Retrieved 10 November 2014.
  8. ^ "A Better Tomorrow". Freer Gallery. Archived from the original on 26 November 2013. Retrieved 2 July 2013.
  9. ^ ""Burn That Film! Burn It!" Tsui Hark and Patrick Lung Kong on a Better Tomorrow | Filmmaker Magazine". 19 August 2014.
  10. ^ a b "Heroic Bloodshed: How Hong Kong's style was swiped by Hollywood". British Film Institute. 11 July 2019. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  11. ^ "The Brothers". Hong Kong Cinemagic. Retrieved 21 November 2017.
  12. ^ Mondal, Sayantan. "Amitabh Bachchan starrer 'Deewar' was remade in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam – and Cantonese". Scroll.in. Archived from the original on 30 January 2017. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  13. ^ Chaudhuri, Diptakirti (2015). Written by Salim-Javed: The Story of Hindi Cinema's Greatest Screenwriters. Penguin Books. p. 245. ISBN 9789352140084.
  14. ^ Peirse, Alison (2013). Korean Horror Cinema. Edinburgh University Press. p. 190. ISBN 9780748677658.

External links[edit]