Saturday, September 05, 2009

Blood Ties (Huan Hun / 還魂)

The Avenging Angel

I had developed a keen interest in Chai Yee-wei's body of short films, besides personal reasons that my friends and I did go up against his many years back in a competition (no guesses needed to know who won of course). In fact it was during that 48 hour contest that made me sit up and take notice that here's someone who can tell a good, entertaining story under similar constraints and resources, and his shorts throughout the years are testament to that. Some two years ago during a screening of Blood Ties the short film, he had made mention that he's developing the feature length version, and here we are today. My verdict? It's a stellar debut feature film from a young director from our shores, and possibly one of the very best debuts we've seen over the last few years.

Films dealing with the supernatural make for easy commercial success, going by demographics and habits of our film going culture. But not always of course. In recent years we've had Kelvin Tong's The Maid which proved to be a box office hit, making Tong one of the rare directors we've had who managed to find success in both the commercial and festival scenes. Men in White was somewhat of a blip in experimentation, but Tong had redeemed himself with Rule #1. There aren't too many narrative features that get the big screen treatment here and even rarer are those which do not have perceived art-house connotations. Jack Neo films face the usual complaint of being lacking in cinematic quality despite them being consistently money spinners, such as his recent "hor-medy" Where Got Ghost? and while I know judging from one film might be a little premature, writer-director Chai Yee-wei has demonstrated his potential for mainstream success.

As a debut feature film director, Yee-wei doesn't shy away from challenges nor stuck to the safe and the predictable. He had instead gone straight for the jugular in a bold style to tell his story. Blood Ties is presented in a non-linear narrative, and you can try as hard as you can, but I didn't spot any obvious plot loopholes when it went back and forth in time. What more, it doesn't serve to confuse, but rather enhanced the entire mood of the central plot, unravelling itself through a series of bizarre events based on the belief of a spirit's return on the 7th day after death, leaving you guessing and through its revelation of its secret bit by bit, keeps you adequately in suspense up until the last act.

Blood Ties is somewhat similar in spirit (pardon the pun) to Alex Proyas' cult classic The Crow, where the slain returns to take revenge upon those guilty of his demise, but of course with inputs from Chinese mythology to make it uniquely Asian. To call it horror would be a misnomer, or to think that it dwelled on gimmicky moments for that supernatural spin would be unfair as well. It steered clearly away from the usual cliché bag of tricks to thrill and elicit an audience to scream, and being possibly one of the most violent local films without the need to become exploitative for the sake of.

There are a number of excellent technical plus points in this film, such as the production sets used that can place the film in any Asian country, and the beautiful photoplay of light and shadow. Added to that, international screen veterans such as Cheng Pei Pei playing the mother of the slain cop Shun (David Leong) and Kenneth Tsang as a police inspector all served up wonderful screen presence and gravitas in their respective roles. However, screen debutant Joey Leong who plays Qin, Shun's younger sister, is the one to watch, stealing the show from everyone with her role as the lovable sister, before the possession turned her into a blood-seeking vessel for Shun's spirit as he/she sought revenge. The support cast, such as Vincent Tee, and a slew of fresh faced actors as the villains, all pulled their weight convincingly in delivering this Chai Yee-wei story.

Which is chiefly what Blood Ties excelled in, not about the horror, or the supernatural elements, but it has a fantastic storyline which left no loose ends, being tightly knitted without unnecessary frills, and directed with such maturity that it had raised the bar as far as local debut feature films are concerned. Besides the obvious tale of cold-blooded revenge without remorse, I felt that Yee-wei had snuck in some little bit of a social commentary about the dangers of corruption of those in power because of the human nature of greed, if you would pay attention to a short television interview in the first act, and the call for transparency, which is something quite current in our local current affairs. A little sub-plot which forms the basis for some character motivation and accusation, which did not overstay its welcome by being too preachy.

The language used in the film also deserve mention. Blood Ties has a more realistic smattering of Bahasa Melayu, Mandarin, English and mixed Chinese dialects. The latter is interesting because while Hokkien has been condoned in many recent feature films (which I felt undoubtedly helped the film reach out to older audiences), I applaud the use of Cantonese as well because this meant the likes of Tsang and Cheng need not be unceremoniously dubbed over, relying on the third party dubber to enact and bring across their feelings and emotions, something which was done in one version of the trailer. I had hopes that their actual dialogue in the film would be kept intact, and I'm glad that they were. And the dialogues here were some of the best because they felt like music to the ears, a more realistic, everyday experience because we tend to switch around with ease, or substitute words from other languages without being obviously conscious about it. Since this film has the endorsement from the Singapore Film Commission (being the first film to be completed under its Feature Film Fund) under the auspices of the Media Development Authority, I hope that this is indeed a sign that things are beginning to loosen up, for our filmmakers to keep to their artistic vision. Don't worry of course, there are Mandarin and English subtitles for those who do not speak the languages uttered on screen.

Blood Ties is a film that I would add to my shortlist of simply the best this year I've seen, and something I would proudly proclaim to have been done in Singapore and will not fail to mention this should anyone abroad asks what recent local films should they take note of. I'm also hedging my bets that Yee-wei would be knocking on the doors of our more established filmmakers who have so far defined our local film industry, and stamp his contribution to Singapore's fast growing filmography. If you're game for a local film this season with high production values, a great story with a supernatural element, and featuring a fresh cast, then Blood Ties should be your automatic choice, hands down! Highly recommended!


Opens in cinemas next Thursday 10 Sep!

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