Inspired by John Woo's Bullet in the Head, Blood Brothers ventures into the tried and tested boys in the hood gangland story about honour and comradeship, only to find out that there's a little more to girls, gangs and guns. The movie looks great with beautiful sets, costumes, props, but there was a general sense of being emotionally empty beneath the shiny looking veneer.
I always thought the cinematic 1930s Shanghai resembled the Capone era of Chicago, with gangland chiefs ruling the streets, and beautiful molls being the damsels in distress, carving a living out of singing in the dance halls, waiting for their anti-hero in that smart suit and fedora hair, totting a tommy and mowing down opponents without batting an eyelid. Blood Brothers transports us back to the era of the Shanghai Bund, with brothers Gang (Liu Ye), Hu (Tony Yang) and best friend Feng (Daniel Wu) looking toward the big city for an opportunity to carve a name for themselves. Leaving their village to pursue their dream, little do they know that their friendship will be put under severe tests when greed, power and ambition, or the lack thereof, come into play, and challenge the very notion of blood being thicker than water.
However, despite big names in the production, what I found to be primarily lacking, is that you don't feel for the brotherhood and camaraderie between Gang, Hu and Feng, which I thought was extremely crucial if we were to care about what will happen to the trio - a reluctant soul yearning for home, a brawn over brains type muscleman whose ambition knows no bounds, and one who turned to the bottle because he can't live up to expectations. Time is indeed set aside in the beginning as a prompter, but it's a case of too little too late, with the narrative being caught up with bringing the audience to the glitz and glamour of the Paradise nightclub. Here, the blood brothers three get involved with yet another power playing trio - Boss Hong (Sun Honglei), his number one enforcer and brother Mark (Chang Chen), and the moll of the movie, the sultry cabaret singer Lulu (Shu Qi), and as the story unfolds and entangle all our casts together into a web of complex relationships, it is when the plot starts to thicken and get slightly interesting, only again to be exposed for its one-dimensional treatment.
Which is a pity, given the potential of how things could have been played out. Even the ironic audacity of having the devilish characters storm into Paradise and unleash hell with guns ablazing, in attempts to reach a crescendo, ended up being a tad too bland. Perhaps the same-old treatment given to familiar themes and scenarios bore little fruit, despite a change in setting and a power cast. You just know what will happen, and they happen like clockwork. And it seemed that Blood Brothers was perpetually plagued by the clumsy romantic angles that don't serve much purpose or to contribute any depth to the characters involved.
Despite the weak material, the cast did prove to be charismatic enough to hold your attention throughout, which is a good thing. Shu Qi lends her voice and sings in the movie, Chang Chen broods with a degree of suaveness, Daniel was found to be struggling with Mandarin, Sun Honglei was being really menacing, Tony Yang as the naive follower, and Liu Ye's steely gaze and demeanour will make you think twice should you want to cross his character. There were plenty of close up shots of their facial expressions in Blood Brothers, and this pretty left much of the beautiful sets and costumes being left unseen.
What I found wanting though, was the editing and cinematography. It was quite jarring to see the 180 degree rule broken so obviously, and bringing so much attention to itself. For the first time in many years, I was actually slightly disoriented when watching a scene, when it particularly liked to cross the line and back again, and move back and forth when characters are conversing, or that sudden swing of action brings us to the other side of it all. For once, I would have begged for the camera to stay where it should be, and stay still for that matter.
I would love to have loved Blood Brothers for its high production values. However, the way the story is developed, and while trying hard to evoke equal emotions as the material it got inspired by, just left a bad aftertaste that it was trying just too damn hard to please.