Blood Brothers

When this film project was announced it generated a fair amount of excitement because of the big names behind and in front of the camera. Producing it were John Woo and Terrance Chang and it would star some of the higher profile young Chinese actors on today’s scene - Daniel Wu, Hsu Chi, Chang Chen, Liu Ye and Tony Yang. The film also sounded like a natural return for John Woo to his Hong Kong roots that he deserted years ago for Hollywood – a passionate male bonding tale of loyalty, love and betrayal in Shanghai in the 1930’s. Woo and Chang turned over the reins of directing this high budget ($10 million) film to Alexi Tan. Hold on a second. Alexi Tan? Off the top of your head you might have trouble recalling his previous films – that would be because there weren’t any – only some music video’s and short films. It seems rather an odd choice to put this film into the hands of someone with so little experience especially if you add to this the fact that he is from the Philippines, but the gamble seemed to have paid off when the prestigious Venice Film Festival choose Blood Brothers as the closing film.

Yet the film doesn’t hold up to any of this build up as it comes across as an uninspired pastiche of other films – most directly Woo’s own Bullet in the Head but also with echoes of Shanghai Grand, A Better Tomorrow and The Godfather trilogy wafting through. But while those films had drive and energy that never let go, Blood Brothers sluggishly moves along with its narrative feet often encased in sticky caramel colored melodrama. Tan appears to be so enraptured with the rich look of his film and of his actors, that he stops constantly for ego sized close-ups and drawn out intimate conversations saturated in artificial lighting. These characters do a lot of talking and very little doing as they come across as a set of Chinese Hamlets unable to be decisive. Chinese film titles are often much more flowery than the English ones and though I have no idea what this one would translate to it should have been called The Angst Ridden Shanghai Gangsters. What struck me most was that I read that Woo edited the film, but it feels both too long in some ways and too short in others and often contains some awkward alternating POV shots so that you have to wonder what he had to work with.

As soon as the viewer is introduced to the three main protagonists’s one can quickly guess what the arc of this story will be – Kang (Liu Ye) is the dominant one in the group with his quick temper, fast fists and cruel eyes, his brother Hu (Tony Yang) is the passive follower and Fung (Daniel Wu) is the sensitive one. They live in an idyllic country village that feels like it is straight out of a movie set where everything looks squeaky clean and every one looks happy – except for Kang who wants the three of them to go to the big city of Shanghai to make their fortunes. Hu complies easily enough and Fung reluctantly agrees to leave his ailing mother, his filial sister and his lovely doting village belle to make some money. Initially, Shanghai is tough as they get jobs as rickshaw drivers (watching the urbane Wu trying to look like a coolie is almost worth the price of a ticket), but they find working for the merciless Boss Hong (Sun Hong-lei) to be more rewarding and they soon find themselves rising up in his criminal hierarchy. This life style though begins to drive a wedge between the three friends as Kang is willing to do anything to make good, the shell-shocked Hu takes to drink and staggers through the remainder of the film and Fung is conflicted between friendship and morality. Enter into this picture the gorgeous Lulu (Hsu Chi), a nightclub chanteuse and the girlfriend of Boss Hong. Fung takes to her like a fish to water and his sweet lass from home becomes a distant memory – but Lulu may have something going on the side with Hong’s main enforcer Mark (Chang Chen) who kills with the cool of his namesake from A Better Tomorrow but seems modeled on Simon Yam’s character from Bullet in the Head.

None of this potential drama and conflict ever carries any emotional ballast because there is zero chemistry between any of the characters beginning with the three friends. In the same way that a good romance needs chemistry between the leads, a male bonding film needs for the viewer to believe that these people are really friends who will die for one another – something that Woo was the master of in his Hong Kong films – but these just feel like three stock characters thrown on to the set and told that they are friends and so when they begin to turn on one another it creates no sense of tragedy but instead just a sense of relief that the film has finally reached this inevitable page in the script. That is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film – it just feels so unoriginal and anyone with a background in Hong Kong film will find no surprises along the way as it reaches its Better Tomorrow inspired but poorly choreographed finale - the only surprise is how little you care.

My rating for this film: 5.5