O Sangue (A Better Tomorrow, The Music Room)

An awkward blend of tough guy posturing and homosocial sentimentality (complete with adult male tickle fights), John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) is so determined to make its protagonist sympathetic that he’s never allowed to be interesting or believable, even before he resolves to go straight. (The movie’s Chinese title means “True Colours of a Hero.”) As the film opens, Sung Tse-ho (Ti Lung) is part of an international counterfeiting ring yet he’s somehow managed to keep this a secret from his younger brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), who wants to be a cop. Tse-ho may be a crook but he’s unwaveringly loyal to his friends—unlike his associate, Shing (Waise Lee), who betrays Tse-ho so that he can take his place—though the movie might’ve been more interesting if he weren’t; at least it would’ve been more realistic. Perhaps it’s best to approach the story as merely a pretext for the film’s action scenes which cheerfully abandon continuity and logic. At one point, half a dozen taxi drivers appear out of thin air so that Shing’s henchmen have more people to fight, and Tse-ho’s confrère, Mark (Chow Yun-fat), has a sixth sense that tells him when a bad guy pops up behind him during a shootout. This is watchable enough but James Gray’s We Own the Night (2007) told a similar story more persuasively and with stronger action scenes.

Although one conservative blogger has described Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958) as a defense of the aristocracy as selfless patrons of the arts¹, it strikes me as being pretty ambivalent about its central character, a faded nobleman whose “dangerous addiction” to music winds up destroying him. When the story begins, Biswambhar Roy (Chabbi Biswas) is already broke, but in Bengal in the early part of the twentieth century, the idea that an aristocrat would lower himself by getting a job wouldn’t occur to Roy or anyone else (it’s not like he has any skills), making his downfall all but inevitable. But while the movie characterizes Roy as a decadent layabout who spends his days idly huffing on a hookah pipe, he’s still portrayed in a far more flattering light than his upwardly mobile neighbor, Mahim Ganguli (Gangapanda Bose), a moneylender who spurs Roy to throw ever more lavish musical recitals; Roy may ruin himself to keep up appearances but he has refinement while Ganguli is the embodiment of nouveau riche vulgarity. (In one scene, he brags to Roy that all his furniture comes from the best English shops in Calcutta.) Near the end of the film, Roy gives a speech to one of his servants explaining that Ganguli couldn’t beat him because of his noble blood, and depending on one’s biases, this monologue can either be taken at face value (there’s no doubt he’s the better man) or as proof that he’s finally lost it (with his wide eyes and excited speech, Roy comes off as slightly mad), and his subsequent demise is at once tragic and pitiful.

1. Morton, Victor J., “I Wish I Were Indian.” Right-Wing Film Geek. WordPress. Originally posted on December 1, 2011. Accessed on January 10, 2013.