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Singapore has of late been turning out a number of effective supernatural outings, such as Kelvin Tong’s “The Maid” and “Rule no.1”, and now the 2009 “Blood Ties”, which marked the feature length debut of upcoming director Chai Yeewei. The film is an interesting blend of crime drama, revenge thriller and ghost chiller, making good use of Chinese folklore in a modern urban setting and exploring themes of police corruption and life after death. Chai managed to pull together an impressive cast, headed by David Leong (“Painted Skin”), Cheng Pei Pei (the Shaw Brothers sword maiden, more recently in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and gangster veteran Kenneth Tsang (“A Better Tomorrow”, “The Killer”), with child actress Joey Leong carrying the film in the central role.
The film revolves around the brutal murder of David Leong’s honest officer Shun, who before his death is forced to watch his wife being raped and executed. As per the belief that a person’s soul returns on the 7th night after their death, Shun’s spirit possesses his 13 year old younger sister Qin (Joey Leong), using her body to track down and take revenge upon his killers.
Although its premise may sound a touch generic, “Blood Ties” is a surprisingly ambitious affair, with a fractured narrative which leaps around in time, both before and after the heinous crime at its centre. Chai does a far better job with this format than many other more experienced helmers, and avoids the usual kind of pointless repetition and forced cleverness which tends to mark so many other films of its kind. Partly this is due to his boldness at quite openly revealing future events in a starkly casual manner, most notably the deaths of certain characters, quite often leaving the viewer guessing as to what they have actually seen. As a result, whilst the story itself is fairly basic, charting Shun/Qin hunting down and killing all involved in his death, it’s confident, engaging and pleasingly complex, with some excellently timed revelations making for a few genuine surprises during the final act.
The narrative also helps to lend the film somewhat of a karmic air, and Chai works the Chinese ghost lore into the story with consummate skill, never using it simply as a gimmick or over-explaining it to the edge of redundancy. Through this, he is able to weave together the film’s supernatural and crime thriller elements in a far more successful way than other films have in recent memory, and it rattles along at a cracking, gripping pace, even if the ending itself is never in too much doubt.
The film also benefits from a brutally hard edge, thanks to some unflinching scenes of bloody violence. Shun’s murder makes for a horrific centre piece, and if anything only gets worse with repeated showings, and his revenge is suitably sadistic, with most of the killers meeting ends that are guaranteed to make even hardened genre fans wince. As well as serving well to ground things firmly in the physical world, this adds a real sense of threat, and though it’s obviously hard to feel any sympathy for the victims, the film has an ominous atmosphere and unshakable intensity. Chai does take the viewer to some exceedingly dark places, and the film is one of the few recent examples of category III cinema which truly deserves its certificate.
All of this aside, the film’s real ace up its sleeve is the amazing performance of young Joey Leong, who turns in the best showing by any child actor for some time. Utterly convincing as Qin possessed by Shun, she exudes a terrifying sense of menace and rage, that’s all the more effective due to Chai’s efforts to ensure that she retains her humanity, and at making sure the film never falls back on any of the usual creepy killer kid clichés. Having old hands such as Cheng Pei Pei and Kenneth Tsang on board also adds a touch of class and experience, with David Leong similarly acquitting well himself as the tragic officer.
With the Asian supernatural genre sadly continuing its worrying decline, it’s hard to over emphasise just how heartening it is to come across a ghost themed film as good as “Blood Ties”. Proving that the form is perfectly capable of being used for serious, hardboiled entertainment, the film deserves to be far more widely seen, and surely marks Chai Yeewei as a real talent to watch.
Yee-Wei Chai (director)
CAST: Pei-pei Cheng