“Blood Brothers” marks the debut of Alexi Tan, and has drawn attention not only for its all star cast but for being heralded as a reworking of John Woo’s classic “Bullet in the Head”, with the legendary action director himself acting as co-producer. Managing to score a high profile spot as the closing film of the 2007 Venice Festival, the film was one of the year’s biggest Chinese blockbuster releases, and perhaps as such it is unsurprising that its main selling point has been its high production values and glamorous recreation of 1930s Shanghai.
The film follows two brothers, Kang (Liu Ye, from the 2006 hit “Curse of the Golden Flower”) and Hu (Tony Yang, also in “Ming Ming”), and their best friend Fung (Daniel Wu, who recently impressed in Derek Yee’s “Protégé”), who leave the romantic and picturesque idyll of their small country town for the promise of making big money in Shanghai. Here, they soon start working for gang leader Boss Hung (played by Sun Honglei, “Seven Swords”) under the tutelage of top killer Mark (Chang Chen, “Silk”). Unfortunately, although all goes well at first, the cracks soon start to show, as Fung unwisely but inevitably starts making puppy eyes at Hung’s moll, the nightclub singer Lulu (“Confession of Pain” star Shu Qi, seeming somewhat out of her depth with the role) and Kang becomes intoxicated with power and violence. Needless to say, the three are soon pointing guns at each other with tragedy looming large on the horizon.
The main strength of “Blood Brothers” is without a doubt its visuals, and on this score the film is a resounding success. Impeccably stylish and hard to fault as an exercise in old Shanghai glamour, the film has a gorgeous, luxurious, glossy sheen and it is obvious that great effort has been put in to recreate the period, or at least a vision of its imagined dreamy decadence. Tan’s prior experience as a photographer certainly comes in handy, as every frame is meticulously composed, though without giving an impression of excess in the manner of Zhang Yimou, and the film is easily one of the best looking from China in recent years. Interestingly, by keeping a large part of each shot in darkness, director Tan gives the production an oddly theatrical air, a feeling echoed by his use of light and shadow to emphasise the shadiness of the criminal underworld, and in these respects, “Blood Brothers” recalls Sam Mendes’ “Road to Perdition” far more than anything by John Woo.
Whether or not “Blood Brothers” is a remake of Woo’s “Bullet in the Head” is largely irrelevant, as the plot itself is pure cliché and populated entirely by unlikeable vacuous genre stereotypes. Although the three male leads rise from being three lowly peasant boys to being top gangsters and bosses, there is nothing whatsoever in the way of character development, and none of them change significantly during the course of the drama – though this is arguably down to the fact that none of them actually have any identifiable characteristics to begin with. Whilst the protagonists in Woo’s own films are undeniably drawn with broad, broad strokes, they have always had heart, something which has gone a long way to making the ensuing melodrama easier to swallow. Unfortunately, this is painfully lacking in Tan’s film, and as a result it feels emotionally distant, especially since most of the eye candy cast obviously faced an uphill struggle from the very beginning thanks to some truly risible dialogue and unbelievable character motivations.
Whilst not exactly pretentious, the film is incredibly overblown and self important, an impression not helped by the grandiose soundtrack which has a tendency to soar and swell at decidedly inappropriate moments. Thanks to this, the drama never quite convinces, and the viewer is nagged throughout by a suspicion that the film may in fact be some kind of spoof despite its determined poker face. Of course, this in itself is quite entertaining, though obviously not in the way intended – but since when has that mattered?
In lieu of proper characters, Tan complements the visuals with plenty of bloody action and violence, and the film is surprisingly brutal in places. Whilst this is no real replacement for the human factor, it does help to keep things entertaining and exciting, if not particularly engaging. Also in its favour is the fact that it is relatively short and moves along at a brisk pace, with Tan managing to avoid too much wallowing and thankfully eschewing Woo’s preponderance for slow motion and doves.
At the end of the day, film is a visual medium, and “Blood Brothers” certainly offers a feast for the eyes, with pretty much every frame screaming ‘look at me’. As such, whilst it is a shame that not as much effort went into providing it with substance as with style, it still manages to impress on several levels, and stands as one of the more entertaining of the recent big budget blockbusters of Chinese cinema which should be enjoyed by all viewers willing to switch off their brains for an hour and a half.
Alexi Tan (director)
CAST: Ye Liu … Da Gang
Daniel Wu … Ah Feng
Chen Chang … Mark
Qi Shu … Lulu
Tony Yang … Xiao Hu