FILM DIARY: A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Tsui Hark, 1989)

Its narrative taking place at the fag-end of US involvement in Vietnam, Tsui Hark’s prequel to John Woo’s iconic A BETTER TOMORROW (1986) sees the ultra-cool Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) finding his Ken Takakura-esque shades, his distinctive Alain Delon-esque raincoat and his mojo through a relationship with action woman Kit (the incredible Anita Mui, who died tragically young in 2003).

As fans of HK cinema know, Woo planned a prequel to A BETTER TOMORROW that was set during the war in Vietnam but fell out with his producer Tsui Hark, and Hark went on to direct this picture whilst Woo made the somewhat similar BULLET IN THE HEAD (1990), also set during the Vietnam War.

Travelling to a Vietnam that is faced by a power vacuum – the Americans are on the verge of pulling out of Saigon, whilst the South Vietnamese forces have an iron grip on the city – Mark and his cousin Mun (Tony Leung) discover themselves enmeshed in an environment mired in corruption and bribery. ‘When they see cash, their eyes light up like headlights’, Mark observes in relation to the officials. At first, this works to their advantage – Mark bribing officials to release Mun from prison – but as the story progresses, these protagonists, joined by Kit, discover the human cost of this corruption.

It’s a corrupt, oppressive system that is represented through Bong (Nam Yim), a morally bankrupt commander in the South Vietnamese army who becomes the film’s chief antagonist. As the story develops, the characters repeatedly refer to gambling as a metaphor for life and a fatalistic worldview: ‘Our gambling chips are being played by others. We have no choice whether we win or lose. The only choice is whether or not to play’, Mark tells Kit.

Hark emulates Woo’s use of slow-motion and cross-cutting in A BETTER TOMORROW and A BETTER TOMORROW II, though in this picture the rhythms are all wrong and some scenes play out almost entirely with an undercranked camera, meaning that the slo-mo often feels more like simple padding than an attempt to capture the subjective experiences of the characters during moments of violence.

Early in the film, Mark and Mun witness a peaceful anti-war/anti-American demonstration by students, which is put down with force by the South Vietnamese forces before a couple of young women on a moped throw a bomb into the midst of the soldiers. A clear attempt to draw parallels between the immediate context of the story and the events of Tiananmen Square, this sequence offers a three-dimensional view of violence in a society dominated by corrupt authorities and guerilla warfare, the characters expressing in the dialogue concerns that such authoritarian violence might reach the shores of Hong Kong. For some time after the handover of Hong Kong took place, critics were suggesting that such anxieties in HK cinema were largely unfounded, but revisiting the film in September of 2019, with the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement protests still ongoing in Hong Kong – and provoking heavy-handed tactics from the Chinese authorities – some aspects of A BETTER TOMORROW III seem frighteningly prescient.

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