It’s been twenty four years since John Woo and Chow Yun Fat conspired to make trench coats and firearms as a permanent fixture in our minds by pitting them together in the sweat-drenched street scenes of A Better Tomorrow. But for everything iconic about the original, Song Hae-sung’s remake of the film makes little to no impression at all.
It didn’t have to be this way, of course — and honestly, it’s almost criminal that it was. Song and his army of writers (Kim Hyo-seok, Lee Taek-kyung, Choi Geun-mo & Kim Hae-gon) began their film by weaving a pattern of homegrown depth, setting their story against the backdrop of a splintered Korea in the shape of a family who get separated as they try and flee the repression of the North.
Twenty years after the fact, Kim Hyeok (Joo Jin-mo) ends up a gangster in the South, middle management for a drug-smuggling Pusan mob. His mother and younger brother, Yeong-choon (Song Seung-heon), are held captive and regularly beaten by North Korean guards. Through his mob connections that apply the right amount of grease to the right palms, Kim Hyeok searches furiously for his little brother and manages to find him in a North Korean prison camp. Little Brother is not so forthcoming with forgiveness when he meets Kim Hyeok for the first time — their first meeting since childhood.
The two films – both of which are actually remakes of an even earlier Mainland China film – follow roughly the same path: a deal that goes bad lands Kim Hyeok in jail for three years after being double crossed by the insipid, cloying underling Tae-min (Jo Han-seon), who has been a gangster for about three hours and already wants to be boss. Sometimes all it takes are the balls to want something for which you’re willing to kil. While Kim Hyeok is in jail, Yeong-choon is repatriated and becomes a cop in Pusan, keeping such a close eye on Tae-min he’s almost thrown off of the force.
But Song Hae-sung is not the visionary cinematic tailor that John Woo once was (and no longer is), and cannot weave anything compelling out of his attempt to recapture a special film. Pusan plays its own role – the music of the docks at night and the comfort of family noodle stands – but again, Song can not pull the same magic out of the atmosphere that Woo managed to make with Hong Kong. For all of its failings to live up to the original, it does make the grade in one area, though: sticking religiously to the John Woo doctrine that states, “Why use 1 bullet when 10 look so cool?” Even after all of these years and all of the half-assed attempts to emulate this image, I have to admit that it is still satisfying to see the lollipop sucking Lee Young-Choon (Song Seung-Heon), Kim Hyeok’s best jopok buddy, storm their rivals’ massage parlor two-fisted in order to take out revenge for the double cross.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare this remake so closely to the original, but that’s the problem with remakes, especially for classic films. The standard is set in stone. I struggle to see the point of remaking this film a quarter century later. John Woo’s film has only grown over the years and has not been forgotten. Unless you’re going to bring something new to the table, some point of view, something to say, some basic reason besides money to revisit the well worn story of cop and criminal siblings…why do it? They could have gotten to all of those, and even started to, but then didn’t. Again, why? Cop versus criminal is not a dead trope — well, not yet, despite world cinema’s best efforts to kill it — but it ended up being a wasted opportunity to expand on John Woo’s work by introducing and delving into the wealth of thematic baggage that comes with being a North Korean refuge in South Korea. Instead of diving in head first to this rich topic, director Song tiptoed around the issue and largely used it as a cosmetic trait, not a theme. The rest of the film took its cue from the cautionary tiptoeing and did not develop significantly beyond a cheap revenge film with a pretty cast and a lavish bullet allowance.