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Blood Brothers
cast: Daniel Wu, Tony Yang, Liu Ye, Shu Qi, and Chang Chen

director: Alexi Tan

95 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
I would like to start this review with a word of warning so that other people do not make the same mistake I made. This film should not be confused with Tóu Míng Zhuàng, the 2007 epic-y, battle-y, martial arts-y war film that was known as 'The Blood Brothers' but which is now evidently known as The Warlords. Blood Brothers (aka: Tian tang kou), is what can only be described as a crime melodrama set in 1930s' Shanghai. Well... I say melodrama but it is not exactly a melodramatic film.

Feng (Daniel Wu) is a simple country boy living in a simple country town whilst courting a simple country girl. His best friends Hu (Tony Yang), and Kang (Liu Ye) are also simple country boys, but they have big dreams. They plan to move to Shanghai in order to make some real money waiting tables. Arriving in Shanghai, they find themselves working as rickshaw drivers until Kang manages to get them all a job working in Boss Hong's Paradise club. There, Feng falls in love with Lulu (Shu Qi) while the brothers get sucked into Boss Hong's criminal organisation. Not wanting to leave his friends to die, Feng joins the gang and becomes part of a three-way tug of love between Lulu, Boss Hong and Mark (Cheng) - Boss Hong's stylish but treacherous lieutenant.

As the months tick by, the three friends become increasingly mired in the risky and morally compromised world of crime; Kang becomes Hong's most trusted lieutenant, Hu becomes a pitiful drunk because he cannot bring himself to kill, and Feng makes headway with Lulu while Mark and Hong try to murder each other. Eventually, Hong orders the friends to murder Lulu and Mark and Feng refuses, fleeing back home and leaving Kang to stage a palace coup and take over from Boss Hong. However, for reasons that are far from clear, Kang sends some guys to kill Lulu and Mark, and Lulu winds up dead setting up a spectacular final shoot out as Mark and Feng wade through dozens of Chinese gangsters.

The dryness of the above synopsis reveals the film's principle fault; it feels as though all of the scenes establishing the characters and their relationships to each other were left on the cutting room floor. The film apes the kind of plot moves that are made in melodramas so we have brothers turning on each other, tragic love stories and people betraying their principles. All of these events are presented with the kind of dramatic music and wildly emoting actors that suggest that we are supposed to be moved by them. Sadly, this is not the case. In order for those kinds of moves to work they require the script to make us care about the very things that it will later destroy. So a tragic love story is not tragic if the film does not establish the importance of the central relationship. Nor is one brother betraying another a grand emotional scene if we have no idea of the bond that exists between the brothers.

In some cases, this emotional emptiness is simply down to crude storytelling technique. For example, Kang spends most of the film patting his younger brother Hu on the head. He then, when drunk, beats up a man who dared to mock his brother (horrifying and embarrassing him in the process). When the same older brother betrays Hu in order to grab power, the film presents this event as hugely important and intense but director Alexi Tan has given us no reason to react emotionally to the breaking of the bond between the brothers. Occasionally patting someone on the head is hardly the preserve of intensely loyal brothers who would do anything for each other. It feels as though the scenes in which Hu and Kang's relationship is explained have been cut out.

In other cases, the film's arcs seem to have been dictated more by meta-textual concerns than by the desire for emotional truth. For example, the film introduces us to Feng and his girlfriend early in the film but it then leaves the country town behind and lavishes attention on Feng's attempts to seduce Lulu. It even goes so far as to provide a scene in which Mark tries to recapture Lulu's affections with a romantic gesture only for Feng to come wandering out of her bedroom half dressed. This would seem to suggest that a.) Feng got over his first girlfriend pretty quickly, and b.) Lulu was no longer in love with Mark. However, after having these three characters flee to Feng's home in the country, the film has Feng return to his old girlfriend allowing Mark and Lulu to pair off, completely ignoring Feng's seduction of Lulu as well as any potential conflict between Mark and Feng that might arise from this development. This seems utterly arbitrary but it is clearly just an excuse to have both Mark and Feng return to Shanghai for a spectacular set-piece in which they seek vengeance side by side.

This willingness to sacrifice emotional resonance for fight scenes is symptomatic of the film's wider identity crisis. Indeed, despite the script being mostly a drama, Tan's influences were reportedly Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Neither of which made his name making tear-jerkers.

The identity crisis also infects the film's look as amazing art-deco period production design by Alfred Yau and subtle visual motifs such as the flicking of a lighter to signify power are undermined by Tan's desire to periodically turn Blood Brothers into a gritty action film. So we go from Feng and Lulu falling in love on an immaculately rendered 1930s' film set to someone being burned alive and a final scene featuring the kind of tiresome gun-twirling action that made the fortune of one of the film's co-producers; John Woo.

Given such a terrible script and uneven direction, it is little surprise that Blood Brothers' performances come across as incredibly generic. The actors are all pleasant to look at and they emote their socks off, when told to, but at no point does anyone really manage to communicate what their character is about. This problem is hilariously confirmed by the DVD's tedious making-of featurette, which includes an actor talking about how difficult it was for him to convey a character who is hugely emotional but who never shows it: cut to image of the actor in costume frowning a lot. I guess those years at stage school weren't wasted after all.

The result is a film that is substantially less than the sum of its parts. Blessed with competent actors as well as amazing sets and beautiful production design, Blood Brothers should have been something special. Unfortunately, its weak script and inexperienced director singularly fail to make the film work either as a drama or as an action film.
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