What does it take to make an epic? Thousands of extras? A multimillion dollar budget? A three hour running time? Well, often the answers would be "all of the above". One thing's for certain, if you want to be an epic, but haven't got any of these things you're heading for trouble.
"Blood Brothers" was touted as a gangster epic. A combination of the classic American Cagney movies, by way of the Hong Kong heroic bloodshed genre, inspired by - if not exactly a remake of - John Woo's "Bullet in the Head". This was a great idea. "Bullet" was easily Woo's most intense and real drama, and with modern day film techniques recreating the '30s look should be a walk in the park. Add to this a fairly decent budget, plus several high-profile Hong Kong actors and you should have the makings of a modern classic. A film that might at last restore Hong Kong's film industry to a level that could match the golden era of the late '80s and the '90s.
Unfortunately "Blood Brothers" fails to make good on this promise.
The film's most notable flaw is the running time - a mere 94 minutes. I'm not saying that a film necessarily needs to be 2 hours long to be taken seriously, but if you're trying to create a story that follows several characters as they are sucked into this dark underworld and consequently transformed by it, you need to take your time to develop the characters and the milieu. The plot and the visuals must be busy and layered to give us a real sense of time and place.
Remember the scene from "Goodfellas" where Ray Liotta's character Henry Hill escorts his future wife, played by Lorraine Bracco, through the back entrance of the a night club all the way through the kitchen area to get a table ahead of everybody else, played out in out single 3 minute Steady Cam shot? It may seem like a show-off shot, but it actually does two thing: It establishes Henry Hill's persona - all the doors are open to this guy - plus it gives us a feel for the setting and the mood.
The limited running time of "Blood Brothers" leaves no room for such indulgences. The scenes feel rushed, like they've been cut down to a bare minimum by an overzealous film producer, or written this sparsely to allow the film to get from the start to the finish with the least amount of effort. "Blood Brothers" never feels like an epic because it lacks weight.
How do the three leads get to Shanghai, for example? With a wipe. First we're in their small home town, then a so-called "wipe-effect" moves though the frame and then we're in Shanghai. Not only does this feel rushed, it almost gives the impression that the journey took no effort on the part of the characters. Also, when we meet the boys they already have jobs and they're complaining that the city was nothing like what they thought. This is not the only instance where the film skips ahead and cheats us of some important developments.
Because the film is in such a hurry, it loses some of the momentum it tries to build up. Often scenes on the verge of becoming spectacular will just fade out in the middle of a music cue to make way for the next scene. The rushed style also robs certain scenes of some much needed gravitas. Take for example the introduction of the Boss Hong character, which should have been a pivotal moment in the story. Again "Goodfellas" shows us how this should be done: Early in the film we're introduced to Robert DeNiro's character Jimmy Conway as he enters a seedy back room gambling joint. In this scene director Martin Scorsese plays up the importance of the new character visually as well as narratively. Jimmy Conway steps out from the shadows with a winning smile, and as the young impressionable Henry Hill watches the scene goes into slow-motion, while a voice over tells us how everybody feared Jimmy Conway.
By comparison the introduction of Boss Hong in "Blood Brothers" is spectacularly unspectacular. Fung asks about him when the boys visit club Paradise, and Kang says he's "someone to know, if you want to make it in Shanghai", but then the scene moves on to the next thing and we're left with the impression that the film is almost uninterested in this new character.
Despite these serious problems "Blood Brothers" is still worth seeing for two reasons: The look and the actors.
The '30s setting is a stunning sight to behold. The period cars, the gorgeous ladies in their fancy dresses, the handsome guys in their impeccable suits. There's no doubt in my mind: When it comes to dress code and style, the '30s is my decade of choice. Images of those cold-blooded killers in suits smoking cigars in dimly lit rooms, or the shootouts in the middle of the street while the snow falls gently from the sky in sharp contrast the the bloody violence, will stay with you after the film is over.
Occasionally the film does feel a bit confined. It lacks those big sprawling establishing shots of the city or the streets. In American gangster movies the film crew will simply build a corner of the city to match the period look, or dress up an existing street to accomplish the same. This must be near impossible for a Hong Kong crew, so the exterior shots rarely gives us more than a glimpse of the street before the film cuts away. This doesn't feel terribly annoying, in fact it adds a certain claustrophobic feel to the film. I guess I just wished they had spent a little more money on a few big expansive shots, because that '30s look is so damn intoxicating. Maybe the film didn't have quite as much money as I thought. I also noticed that the establishing shot of the boys' hometown - a pan across a beautiful river - is being reused towards the end of the film. I mean, the exact same shot!
The aforementioned problems with the pacing and feel of the film, as well as the script, naturally extends to the performances as well. The actors are good, but with so little material stretched so thin they have their work cut out for them. Some characters suffer more than others, especially Liu Ye's Kang - who is raised unconvincingly to right-hand man status in about 5 minutes - and Sun Hong Lei's Boss Hong - who simply isn't cool or scary enough to sell the idea that he's boss of it all.
Daniel Wu comes off best, playing the equivalent of Tony Leung's character in the John Woo original. I love Daniel Wu, ever since I saw him in "Purple Storm" (1999). He's likeable, he's got a decent enough range, and he's equally watchable playing both good guys and bad guys.
And then there's Shu Qi...
Where to begin? With how effortlessly she slips into the shoes of a '30s diva, or how beautiful she looks in those dresses? Or how about the scene where she tearfully throws her arms around Daniel Wu asking him to save her?
Shu Qi is easy to fall in love with, especially when she plays characters like this. Lulu is caught in an impossible situation between her dream and a nightmare. She can't possibly stay where she is, she knows all too well she'll be discarded sooner rather than later. She can't run away with her lover Mark, they'd be on the run till the end of days. Fung can't help her either, he's in way over his head as it is. So when Lulu pleads with Fung to help her, she must already know she can't be helped. If that's not heartbreaking I don't know what is.
She Qi plays this aspect of her character to perfection. The love story is the most compelling and dynamic part of the film. Like everything else here it's not given enough screen time, but while it's brewing "Blood Brothers" is on the verge of becoming something really special.
There's no getting around the fact that "Blood Brothers" is a wasted opportunity. This should have been a three hour epic, Hong Kong's answer to "Goodfellas" or "The Godfather", with an edge like "Scarface", but it just isn't. In the end it just can't reproduce the brutal violence of the old-fashioned "heroic bloodshed" genre, nor the quick-on-its-feet-charm of the Cagney films it so desperately wants to imitate.
"Blood Brothers" is not a disaster, though. After all the film is easy on the eyes and it's certainly brief, but in a sense it promises more than it can keep. Luckily the film business is more forgiving than the gangster underworld. There you only get one chance to mess up.