SIFF 2008: Blood Brothers ***

By Dennis Hartley

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Woo me, baby.

No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.

It’s a story setup that you may have seen once or twice. Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater hick village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, exotic and sophisticated babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of the criminal underworld of 1930s Shanghai for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring of the tale. Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be the “movie star”, the Vincent Chase if you will). His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Naw…that’s too easy!

To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be (wait for it)…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords. Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: the lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).

Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about those Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that just oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre and do their best to ape it in their own work (although the American imitators, try as they might, can never quite match the effortless vibe of their overseas inspirations; I liken it to comparing Kansas with Yes). Genre fans will want to keep an eye out for a possible release-or at least a DVD, I hope.

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