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Up until the 1980s Hong Kong action films were almost always variants of wuxia (period martial arts films featuring swordplay) or the more globally ubiquitous kung fu films that made stars of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
That all changed, though, when John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow stormed theaters in 1986. Woo sought to break from the clownish kung fu films that were being churned out at the time by Shaw Studios and create stories that were realistic and mired in the seedy world of the Triads, Hong Kong’s notorious organized crime gangs.
With Tomorrow, and later the action classics The Killer and Hard Boiled, Woo ushered in the age of “gun fu,” marrying balletic movement with furious gunplay and utilizing techniques that are now considered action cliches such as slo-mo, tracking shots and the actors wielding two guns.
Tomorrow, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with special screenings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, stunned audiences upon release, and soon its fame would spread to the West where it heavily influenced filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski sisters.
Many of the key players behind Tomorrow would go on to find regional and international success. The breakout star undoubtedly was Chow Yun-Fat. Though a supporting actor in Tomorrow, Chow is now very much a global name having featured in Hollywood hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Bulletproof Monk.
Woo of course, parlayed his cult following in the West into jobs in Hollywood. He enjoyed a purple patch in the ‘90s with action films like Broken Arrow, Face-Off and Mission: Impossible 2. The film’s producer Tsui Hark has also found continued success as a producer, actor and director, with his military epic The Taking of Tiger Mountain earning over $150 million at the Chinese box office in 2015.
Leslie Cheung was another of the film’s actors who rose to prominence. Already a hugely popular Cantopop idol when Tomorrow was released, Cheung would go on to forge a critically acclaimed acting career with memorable roles in Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together and Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon.
Tragically, Cheung would commit suicide in 2003 at the age of 46 after suffering from depression. His death was a huge shock to the people of Hong Kong and tens of thousands attended his memorial service.
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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures