November 15, 2011

A Better Tomorrow: The Beauty of Not Being Original

Art movements have their renaissances, theaters have their revivals, neighborhoods have their rebirths. But movies, movies have their remakes. As re-creations go, this is certainly the least glamorous of terms. And after watching Song Hae-sung's A Better Tomorrow, the Korean remake of John Woo's landmark film of the same name, it got me to wondering: Why do movie remakes -- also called rehashes -- get immediately stigmatized? It certainly isn't as if we generally leave most movies, commenting "How original!" Isn't it enough to come away from a movie saying, "How excellent!" That's how I felt after watching Song's A Better Tomorrow. But then I'd never seen the original.

But should I have? Would I have enjoyed the film more? And are remakes made simply as byproducts to compare to their progenitors? Is it wrong to re-make a movie because a director thinks the material might speak to a different generation or to a different culture or have something in it that now has something new to say? Should you chastise that director for not optioning a wholly new script, and instead choosing a really good story dying to be retold? When you look at the parts of the first A Better Tomorrow, it's not as if they're pioneering ideas either. We're all familiar with the story of two conflicted brothers -- one a cop (Kim Kang-woo), the other a criminal (Ju Jin-mo). We've all heard the one about the sleazy backstabber (Jo Han-sun) who rises to the top of the mob through nefarious means. We've also cheered on the anti-hero (Song Seung-heon) whose luck runs dry as he goes out in a blaze of well-amunitioned glory. Woo's script -- from which I'm assuming this draws heavily since Woo is credited as both producer and co-screenwriter -- isn't good because it's got new ideas. It's good because it's well-constructed. It makes sense to use it again.

Song's pic updates the recipe somewhat. (How much, I neither know nor care so I'll just make educated guesses.) Now the two brothers are North Korean defectors; their tough-love aunty figure (Kim Ji-yeong) runs one of those eatery tents that I've never seen outside Korean movies and scifi pics with an apocalyptic bent. Let traditionalists deride Song's remake as a retread and those who prefer this A Better Tomorrow celebrate it as a snazzy re-invention. For me, it's just a really good mafia movie tackling all the expected themes of family, betrayal, devotion, greed, redemption and respect amid a deliciously bloody fantasy of gunfire. You watch the one-man vigilantism of the righteous partner or the high-adrenaline final shootout between the self-chastising brother and the thug who's trying to kill his younger brother then tell me whether you care whether it's ever been done before. I sure don't. More likely, you'll be repeating what I wrote earlier: "Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!"

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