Though I had a vague clue that Takeshi Kitano’s Yakuza classic Sonatine (1993) was influenced by Kinji Fukasaku’s Bakuto Gaijin Butai, aka, Sympathy for the Underdog (1971), I was rather astonished when I came across the fact that John Woo’s visceral gangster epic A Better Tomorrow (1986) was inspired by a quaint little classic from 60s Hong Kong, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967). It is a gangster drama all right minus the Hong Kong suaveness that we are all accustomed to and you have to watch it to believe the way John Woo moulded it for his own masterpiece and changed the industry forever. But there are many ways through which Yakuza and Triad films are complementary as well as complimentary to each other be it culturally, aesthetically as well as politically and the recurring use of tropes such as honour, chivalry as well as brotherhood in the narratives.
Now this is a bit debatable, i.e. the apparent lack of apathy towards movies from other genres. Shaw Brothers did make spy thrillers, musicals etc., but they were too few and they always recycled the stars from their martial arts movies who of course had a contractual obligation. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see action star Cheng Pei-pei in a musical. And Shaw Brothers musicals were mostly handled by the Japanese director Umetsugue Inoue and during this period of the tumultuous 60s Shaw Brothers did undertake a number of collaborations like the one with Japan called Asia-pol (1966) starring Jimmy Wang Yu and Joe Shishido, but it was martial arts that would always dominate their output. While Japanese movie industry saw its new wave since the 50s, Hong Kong itself was yet to have its own. But there might be another reason to why martial arts dominated the repertoire of Shaw Brothers as well as other Hong Kong studios. Hong Kong was still a colony of the British, these kung fu movies were a way to preserve the past. But still during the twilight era of Shaw Brothers, they did produce several wonderful gangster thrillers. Maybe the influence of the Hong Kong New Wave was just too much for them to ignore and we got Men from the Gutter< (1983), a harsh, grim, realistic and authentic crime drama. But I feel the bonafide crime masterpiece through which the transition happened was Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Carol Borden corroborates in her essay that Hong Kong gangster dramas of the 80s had much to thank to the kung fu dramas for they inspired the use of the tropes mentioned above.
But yakuza films were always a major staple of Japanese cinema and they never faced any sort of competition from samurai dramas, rather they had a peaceful co-existence. Many yakuza dramas took inspiration from these movies portraying the yakuza hero as a modern samurai warrior who follows a strict code of conduct. But not always. In his essay, ‘Tradition and Modernity in Japanese Yakuza Films of the 1960s and 70s. David Hanley states that yakuza movies from that era showed different aspects of Japan as well as the trials and tribulations of a yakuza though different studios. Toei and Nikkatsu, for example, had different approaches to it. Hence the entire yakuza cannon often had alternate presentation and imagination, but the core values remained unchanged. Be it Toshire Mifune, Koji Tsuruta, Ken Takakura or Bunta Sugawara, samurai or yakuza movies never lacked the stars they needed.
We have to remember that, compared to yakuza movies, Hong Kong/Chinese gangster movies were much newer. Though Hong Kong saw a number of gangster movies during the reign of wuxia/kung fu epics, it was only during the 80s that directors like John Woo, Johnnie To and Tsui Hark changed the cinematic landscape of the country. Yes, this was one of the most interesting aspects of Hong Kong New Wave but Woo, To and Hark all started their career making wuxia movies. Only Hark stayed back in the genre and rather revitalized it. But Hong Kong directors more consciously copied these directors. They gave the blueprint that many could rely on.
In the year 1967, Hong Kong was engulfed in a series of riots featuring pro-communist sympathisers. It was still a British colony and the handover to China would happen 30 years later. During this turbulent time, there were some radical changes that were taking place in the Hong Kong movie industry as well. Like the release of One-Armed Swordsman that heralded a new era of Wuxia/Kung Fu movies and also became the first movie to earn ibe million dollars at the box-office, but along with it, of course, came, The Story of Discharged Prisoner.
Story of a Discharged Prisoner was directed by Patrick Lung Kong. Patrick Tse starred as the protagonist Lee Jwo Horng with Shih Kien as the villain. The premise is simple. Lee is a reformed criminal trying to stay away from the life of crime after spending 15 years in jail but Shih’s One-Eye Jack wants him for a job. When it fails, One-Eye Jack goes after Lee’s brother inciting him against his brother and it works. Lee has lost his job because of his brother’s past and his brother must once again sacrifice himself to save the younger brother from harm’s way. Lee’s character is extremely well-written and what really works is how his struggle is shown throughout the movie. Neither One-Eye Jack nor the cops will leave him alone, and yet Lee doesn’t want to go back to the life of crime. Only when his brother is in trouble does he give it all up. While Patrick Tse is commendable here, it is Shih Kien who emerges victorious as the villainous One-Eye Jack though his claim to global fame would come much later as the villain in Enter the Dragon (1972).
Story of a Discharged Prisoner has a raw story that resonates with the period that Hong Kong was in. It is not exactly brutal or exploitative but it adds a lot of melancholy to the plot and the continuous sacrifice that the protagonist makes gives it an enriching layer. The movie keeps reiterating how difficult it is for an ex-con to make a living. It suggests that an ex-con is trapped. And director Patrick Lung Kong himself appears in the movies as a cop pressuring Lee to become an informer. His character tells supervisor Mak (Patsy Sit Kin) of Hong Kong Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society (where Lee eventually goes for shelter) that it is impossible to reform a criminal thus cementing the idea. that the state ignores the process of reformation even as ex-cons are bullied by various elements forcing them to return to the life of crimes. Though they lack the means of going back to a normal life, they don’t lack are honour, chivalry and brotherhood–something that keeps getting borrowed from the kung fu narratives.
And this is what John Woo compulsively uses in his A Better Tomorrow apart from the strong brotherly bond where the elder brother is ready to sacrifice for his younger brother. Ho (Ti Lung), is a gangster while his younger brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) is preparing to become a cop without knowing what his brother is up to. Ho’s best friend is Mark (Chow Yun-fat) and they work together for a counterfeiter ring printing fake US notes. But a mission in Taiwan goes bad, and Ho gets arrested. He is released and tries to change but as in The Story of Discharged Story, it is not easy. Cops want Ho to become an informer, Kit won’t forgive him because he feels Ho is responsible for their father’s death. Ho’s ex-ward Shing (Waise Lee), who accompanied him to Taiwan and betrayed him, is the new boss of the ring and wants Ho back. Ho’s friend Mark wants revenge after losing a leg while trying to avenge Ho and has now become a lowly member of the ring. Ho tries to balance it all but when his brother’s career as a cop and life comes under threat, he is pushed to the wall and he decides he has to end it. Ti Lung who plays Ho here was a prominent kung fu star of the Shaw Brothers Studio and this role was of course a breakthrough for him. So apart from using tropes that were omniscient in martial arts movies, Woo also chose to use a kung fu star to make a statement that change was here in the Hong Kong movie industry. Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat were other leading stars who would become faces of this change.
And this brotherly bonds present in both the movies force us to think a bit radically something that Carol Borden has pointed out in her essay, ‘Ushering In A New Regime: Johnnie To, Crime Films and Dissent’. While her focus has been more on the takeover of Hong Kong by China just like a triad taking over the territory of a rival gang, it is also to be noted that China has also acted as a big brother figure. But then we have to ask: Is China as sacrificial as the protagonists of these movies? The answer will be a thumping no because of their attempted curbing of dissent in Hong Kong and the crackdown against pro-democracy rallies. This is why A Better Tomorrow as well as The Story of a Discharged Prisoner can be read as China’s failure to become the big brother these movies show. These movies show that a big brother is a responsible figure and China has failed to perform it consistently to such an extent that it regularly bans movies made in Hong Kong from showing in China, like the latest victim, the Johnnie To-produced Trivisa (2016).
Just an addendum. Continuing this cycle of inspiration, John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992), starring Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung Chiu Wai became the inspiration behind the explosive Infernal Affairs (2002). But that’s a story for another day.
The codes of brotherhood, chivalry and honour abound in movies from Hong Kong and Japan and they don’t differ much, though Hong Kong can be credited with creating the genre of “heroic bloodshed.” Another thing that differs between Hong Kong and Japan is that while the former has consistently maintained its identity as that of a colony, the latter was a colonizer that later became a ghost-colony of the United States following the Second World War. And yakuza movies got enough material from this takeover with settings often happening in and around Kobe, Okinawa as well as Tokyo among other places.
But here Okinawa has a special place in this narratives. Like in Fukasaku-Koji Tsuruta’s last collaboration, Bakuto Gaijin Butai, aka, Sympathy for the Underdog (1971), a group of exiled yakuza travels to Okinawa to restart their lives, but things are never easy. While there are some initial success, this group of underdogs can never really salvage themselves from the onslaught and, in a typical Fukasaku style, end up performing a sort of harakiri for a last minute absolution. Starring Koji Tsuruta, Noboru Ando (an ex-yakuza himself) as well as Tomisaburo Wakayama, this movie ranks among Fukasaku’s best.
The word that should have our attention and focus here is the term, gaijin, used in the title, which means ‘foreigner’. Koji Tsuruta, who plays Yakuza boss Gunji, and his crew who wants to restart their lives in Okinawa, a place which is more or less under American influence. They come from the mainland. They are trying to take over the turfs of other yakuza families. They are aliens and hence are considered gaijin. they don’t have enough men and yet, in a typical underdog fashion, they fight. But it is interesting to note that how a group of Japanese became gaijin in a place that’s straight out of a 50s rock and roll, Elvis Presley influenced pop cultural dreamland. Gunji and his crew do get some initial success in Okinawa but ultimately success eludes them. Their failure can be attributed to the fact that they adhered more to the code of honour than their enemies. Their enemies wouldn’t think twice before betraying their trust. Gunji and his crew were more of a hybrid samurai-yakuza and they had to conduct sepukku at the end to finally avenge themselves for everything. Okinawa becomes their playground. Okinawa also becomes the setting of Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine (1993) and it is interesting to see how Kitano changes the narrative, making it a study of how yakuza movies could ultimately underplay the codes related to honour, brotherhood and chivalry.
Sonatine is about yakuza leader Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) who is sent to Okinawa by his oyabun to sort out a misunderstanding between their allies, but things go downhill once he reaches the island. His group is ambushed and he takes refuge near the seaside and this becomes a sort of picnic, an extended holiday. The danger that lurks around them becomes tertiary and what we see here are a group of carefree men enjoying their lives.
It is interesting to observe that Sonatine is summarily a non-routine movie advocating anti-heroic bloodshed. Sonatine can be seen as a movie that challenges both prevalent yakuza narratives as well as the idea of heroic bloodshed. Murakawa is kind of lethargic about going and taking revenge. He is forced to do it only because his comrades are more or less dead. Though Murakawa is a successful boss, one can’t help but notice how accustomed he gets to this routine of practically doing nothing. Given the chance he would stay in the hideout near the idyllic beach. Unlike Gunji, who is sure about what he is doing in part because he has no choice, Murakawa still has an agency that he misplaces because of an existential crisis compounded by a death wish.
While Gunji’s outcome is final, Murakawa could easily avoid it. But by committing suicide at the end, Murakawa not only atones for his sins–if he only considers them to be so–but relieves himself from this Sisphyean lifestyle. Murakawa knows by bumping off his oyabun and the rest of his enemies he has only accelerated a process that he can never let go. But Sonatine as such challenges a narrative structure that is omnipresent. Here Murakawa’s character, though highly caring about his crew, also indulges in silly games with them that might make many question his sanity. But he is tired, he is tired of the cycle of violence. The revenge he takes is forced as well. Gunji from Bakuto Gaijin Butai is tired as well but he is ready to meet an honorable death. Murakawa is not sure about it at all. And as the ending avoids these forms of clarity, Sonatine can be called an anti-yakuza as well as anti-heroic bloodshed narrative.
All four movies discussed here have something different to offer and can be interpreted accordingly. But their influence as such on each other and later movies can never be denied. Rather what brings them together is the idea of chivalry, brotherhood and honour that ultimately weaves a crazy as well as dreamy narrative. <
Guest Star Sayantan Mondal is a PhD Scholar working on the genre of Postcolonial Science Fiction. Apart from this he likes to write about films. But more than that he likes to watch them. And he hopes one day when he will be able to recover from his laziness he will finally start a blog of his own. You can read few of his published pieces here.