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Blood Brothers

(from left to right) Tony Yang, Liu Ye, Song Hong-Lei, Daniel Wu, and Chang Chen in Blood Brothers.
Chinese: 天堂口  
Year: 2007
Director: Alexi Tan
Producer: Terence Chang, John Woo
Action: Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung
Cast: Daniel Wu, Shu Qi, Liu Ye, Tony Yang, Sun Hong-Lei, Chang Chen, Lulu Li Xiao-Lu, Jack Gao
  The Skinny: Pretty but uninspired direction, a bare bones script, and underdeveloped characters derail this highly-anticipated reworking of John Woo's Bullet in the Head. Thanks to its cool iconography and awesome cast, Blood Brothers earns automatic goodwill. It just doesn't capitalize on it.
by Kozo:

Directed by music video director Alexi Tan, Blood Brothers has an insane amount of talent attached to it. Producers John Woo and Terence Chang should be familiar names to anyone who's been around Hong Kong Cinema for a while, and the assembled cast of actors is very impressive. The film stars Daniel Wu, Shu Qi, Sun Hong-Lei, Tony Yang, Liu Ye, and, in an unusually commercial role, Chang Chen. The story itself is a reworking of John Woo's classic Bullet in the Head, but the setting has been shifted from wartime Vietnam to 1930s Shanghai. What's intact, however, are the same themes - brotherhood, honor, pride, and betrayal - which the film neatly weaves into its ninety-plus minute running time. But the film lacks a noticeable passion or spark, resulting in an empty facsimile of the heroic bloodshed experience. There was thought and craft put into Blood Brothers, but that effort never translates into anything substantial. The short story: curtail those expectations, pronto.

Daniel Wu stars as Fung, a country boy who travels along with his close friends, brothers Kang (Liu Ye) and Hu (Tony Yang) to bustling Shanghai to make their fortune. The three are good friends and sworn brothers, and once in Shanghai they get the chance to put that to the test. Both Fung and Hu start as rickshaw pullers, but are soon introduced to the swank environment of Club Paradise by Kang, who works as a waiter there. Club Paradise is owned by Boss Hong (Sun Hong-Lei), who soon lets the hick trio into his inner circle after they steal a shipment of guns from a rival gangster. However, the trio's brotherly bond begins to crack following the heist. Fung is upstanding and a bit naïve, and seems to object to being a hired thug for a Shanghai crime boss. That bit of moralizing puts him at odds with the power-hungry Kang, who gets off on being a gangster, and begins to exhibit a cruelty that's frightening to his friends. Somewhat similar to Fung, Hu is uncomfortable with their new jobs, but his loyalty to his brother is a factor, too. Hu ends up registering his protest by becoming a stumbling, useless drunk.

Fung's conflict is understandable, as he's initially forced to violate some of his morals simply to preserve the lives of his two friends. This theme - the compromising of one's values for the sake of your loved ones - is a potent one, and could explain why the upright Fung still joins Hong's gang despite his personal objections. However, that theme does not explain why Fung behaves so stupidly. Despite Kang being a lackey for Boss Hong, Fung is slow to realize that Kang has drawn he and Hu into a criminal scheme. You'd think Fung would notice a red flag a lot sooner, but he doesn't even register a protest until the smoking gun is practically in his hand.

Also, Fung befriends Mark (Chang Chen), Hong's number one lieutenant and potential betrayer, in a spectacularly dumb way. Mark stumbles out of Club Paradise, shot and bleeding, after a botched hit on Hong, and shoves a gun into Fung's face threateningly before collapsing in the snow. In return, Fung takes Mark home and treats him nicely. Um…yeah, that's a smart move, isn't it? Fung's innane kindness is ultimately justified because Mark is a damn cool individual and he's played by the charismatic Chang Chen, but how is this knowledge supposed to reassure Fung when they first meet? Why would someone as righteous and seemingly averse to illegal activities as Fung help a potential assassin?

This moment of illogical characterization is indicative of one of the biggest problems with Blood Brothers. The film's story and characters are woefully underdeveloped, and the filmmakers seem to justify its unearned narrative leaps through an assumed audience acceptance of its common themes and popular actors. Alexi Tan sets up his players and their conflicts with rote, almost textbook efficiency, and the manner in which it's done is not as compelling as it is merely generic - and yet the audience is still supposed to buy in automatically. Tan's gambit fails, as the characters never fully register beyond their generic stereotypes. Fung is the righteous kid with a heart of gold, Kang is the greedy bastard who'll sacrifice brotherhood for power, and Hu is the weak-willed hanger-on whose inability to choose a side ultimately proves his undoing. Each character is recognizable, but so thinly-sketched that they rarely affect beyond the most superficial level.

Mark is also a very generic character, since he's the Simon Yam/Chow Yun-Fat-stand in, and Chang Chen embodies him with enough brooding cool to turn him into the potential audience favorite. Sadly, despite his coolness with a pistol, Mark is a rather charmless figure, and doesn't even engender sympathy in his romance with Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong's girlfriend and the reason for his betrayer status. You see, Mark loves Lulu, and she loves him, but Boss Hong is the unforgiving sort who'll never let her go, plus Fung is involved as sort of a "I wish Lulu liked me" third party to the whole romance. This undefined geometric figure of love is what ultimately causes the characters to turn on each other. Basically, everyone is unhappy that they've been emotionally betrayed, turning brother vs. brother, lover vs. lover, boss vs. subordinate, and even jilted lover vs. brother's lover's boss. It's all very overwrought.

At least it's overwrought on paper. Blood Brothers has a plot that should create gut-wrenching, emotionally-sweaty conflicts, but onscreen the whole thing plays out in an elegant and strangely sterile fashion. The film possesses a blocky narrative, with scenes jumping from one to the next with little development or logical story connection. One minute the three friends are nobodies and the next minute they've become right-hand men to Boss Hong. Likewise, Fung's close friendship with Lulu seems to occur with almost no development, and some characters perform actions that seem to be lacking sufficient motivation. Boss Hong eventually discovers Lulu and Mark's affair, but how this happens is unknown. Instead of using that conflict to create tension, it's just thrown out as exposition to get the film's third act rolling.

In Blood Brothers, characters are driven to extremes of emotion and action, and Alexi Tan doesn't convince us dramatically. His inspiration, John Woo's Bullet in the Head, was famously overwrought and melodramatic, but it depicted a hyper-emotional, chaotic, and lawless world where characters had to make tough, sometimes devastating decisions in the blink of an eye. Those types of decisions are also made by characters in Blood Brothers but there's no build up or felt underlying emotion. The extremes in Bullet in the Head felt plausible because the characters' desperation was so acutely felt, such that when the film finally threw reality out the window, it still managed to convince and affect. In contrast, Blood Brothers feels rather cold and even dull, such that characters and their actions never seem credible.

The actors do decently, though the shortcomings in the script and direction give them little to work with. Daniel Wu is convincing when acting naïve or tortured, but the character's righteous indignation is so nonsensical that Wu only ends up looking silly when he drops his gun and asks, "Why?" for the umpteenth time. Tony Yang doesn't get to do much besides act dopey and drunk, and Chang Chen, despite having the coolest character in the film, doesn't get the chance to display the requisite charm to go along with his character's omnipresent brooding. Shu Qi is gorgeous but distant, and never truly becomes sympathetic; at a key moment in the film, Lulu gets to talk about a cherished memory involving an old woman and her love for sticky rice, and when the moment occurs it's astounding how uninteresting and extraneous it feels.

Faring the best among the actors are Sun Hong-Lei and Liu Ye. Sun doesn't get enough screentime as Boss Hong, but manages to make his character charismatic and subtly menacing. Liu Ye overacts deliciously as Kang, easily outpacing his more subdued and composed co-stars. Liu's character is probably the most integral to the film, because it's his "turning" that sets all this brotherhood betrayal in motion. Liu creates more of a character than the script really allows, as some vital narrative support seems to be missing that would explain his character's increasingly pronounced evil. Still, Liu's performance is the closest the film gets to a passionate one, and at least he's fun to watch.

It's passion that's ultimately missing from Blood Brothers, though one could argue that a film like this should be reverent and powerful, like The Godfather. That wouldn't be a bad way to go either and Blood Brothers does have the look and feel of a somber gangland drama. However, there's precious little beneath that look and feel. The film could use some more felt emotions, like the over-the-drop melodrama of Bullet in the Head. The hyper-emotional tone of that film is one of the reasons that it managed to affect as much as it did. The over-the-top action helped too, and Blood Brothers severely lacks that sort of grand genre flourish. Only the climax offers up some entertaining action, but the film up until then is so unconvincing that watching these guys start to own one another with pistols and machine guns is less than cathartic. And before the climax, most action sequences end mere seconds after they begin. For a film so reliant on heroic bloodshed themes, there's precious little heroism or bloodshed here; Blood Brothers is just a collection of proven themes rehashed in a pretty, but shallow manner that seems only perfunctory. Blood Brothers just doesn't convince, and indeed, is mystifying in its complete inability to dig beneath the surface of its attractive exterior. By any measure, this is a disappointing film, but given everything that the film seems to represent to the Hong Kong Cinema fan, Blood Brothers is beyond disappointing. It's downright depressing. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras
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