The closing film at the Venice film festival, Blood Brothers is a dark gangster fable set in 1930s Shanghai - and a stylish but hollow debut for John Woo protege Alexi Tan. For all the film's lush cinematography, spot-on period detail and all-star Asian cast, there's a feeling of deja vu about this story of three young provincial lads - two of them brothers, the third a close friend - whose all-for-one relationship is destroyed by the moral poison of the big city.
Once you take away the period trappings, Blood Brothers feels like a straight homage to the 'heroic bloodshed' genre invented by Woo and Tsui Hark with A Better Tomorrow (1986), but without the quirky take on character that has enabled someone like Johnnie To to take Hong Kong blood operas in a new direction.
Blood Brothers proves, in fact, that one needs a little more than a cast cherry-picked to appeal equally to Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China - plus Mandarin rather than Cantonese dialogue - to lure the increasingly demanding, sophisticated audiences in these territories. The first Chinese-language production for Lion Rock, the production company set up by John Woo and Terence Chang in 1997, the film opened disappointingly in Hong Kong and Taiwan in August. Elsewhere Fortissimo will be hoping that Tan's big idea - imagining thirties Shanghai as a Chinese Chicago - will widen its appeal beyond the usual fanbase market for Hong Kong action fare. It's a risky prospect, though, given the film's pedestrian script, and Tan's debut may end up surfacing only on DVD in some territories.
The film opens in full-on sentimental mode, painting a soft-focus picture of rural life in a fishing village still untouched by the nearby metropolis; the Arcadian innocence of the place is stressed by a slushy orchestral score. Frustrated by small-town life, Fung (Daniel Wu), his friend Kang (Liu Ye), and Kang's younger brother Hu (Tony Yang) decide to try their luck in the big city. Taking a job as a waiter in a nightclub called Paradise, headstrong, ambitious Kang soon brings pensive, romantic Fung and impressionable Hu into the orbit of the club, which is run by ruthless boss Hong (Sun Honglei). Fung becomes emotionally entangled with Hong's plaything Lulu (Shu Qi), the club's resident chanteuse - except he soon discovers that Lulu is having an affair with Mark (Chang Chen), Hong's lieutenant and chief hitman.
All three 'blood brothers' become mobsters, but as Kang becomes more ruthless, rising in the hierarchy, Fung is assailed by doubts, and cracks gradually open up between the trio. Unfortunately there are cracks in the script too, which is so keen to get to the tragic finale that it blusters us through a couple of glaring plot incongruities, while lines like 'If we do this, there's no turning back!' keep things predictably on the nose.
There are moments when it all gels dramatically, and the performances are mostly solid, but there's an odd feeling of sluggishness in the midst of all the fast action and elliptical story structure. At least we have Tim Yip's costumes and Alfred Yau Wai Ming's sumptuous production design to look at: the nightclub design is particularly effective, with its bright, glamorous front bar and stage that mimic Western models (and provide an excuse for a couple of Ziegfeld-Follies-style dance numbers), while the sombre, dark rooms behind where Boss Hong holds court are antechambers of the underworld in both senses of the word.
Production companies/ backers
Lion Rock Productions (US)
CMC Entertainment (TAI)
Sil-Metropole Organization (HK)
(31) 20 627 3215
Alfred Wau Yai Ming