Glamorous photography is no substitute for compelling dramatic content. Far too many scenes in Blood Brothers look and feel as though director Alexi Tan followed a self-imposed dictum to "light first, act later." His film labors mightily to get its narrative ball rolling, to no avail.
More's the pity, because Blood Brothers was inspired by very rich source material. John Woo's Bullet in the Head, released in 1990, is arguably Woo's most personal and potent work, gut-wrenching to the point where it feels that he simply opened a vein and let his blood seep into every frame (as I've written before). That film was set in war-torn Vietnam in the late 1960s and had a very gritty feel; by the end, it felt as though you'd suffered as much pain and heartache as the three main characters, close friends whose bond of brotherhood was tested under fire.
Woo's film was originally intended as a prequel to his action classics A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II. After Woo had a falling out with producer Tsui Hark, the story was free to develop into something more original, without having to tie the characters into the other films. From the looks of things, it appears that Woo and producing partner Terence Chang similarly encouraged Tan to follow his own artistic muse. Tan's script, completed in collaboration with Jiang Dan and Tony Chan, keeps only the most basic outline of Woo's film: three close friends seek their fortune in the world. Oddly, though, the script includes very few of the incidental interactions, shared experiences and communal tribulations that might cause three men to feel like "blood brothers." Fung (Daniel Wu), Kang (Liu Ye) and Kang's younger brother Hu (Tony Yang) all hail from a rural Chinese village blessed with abundant waterways. The three labor as fishermen while Fung enjoys a sweet, innocent flirtation with the shy and quiet Su Zhen (LuLu Li) and cares for his sickly mother. Marriage seems inevitable for Fung and Su Zhen until opportunity comes knocking.
It is the ambitious Kang who initially responds to the siren call of Shanghai, a wild, bustling city in the 1930s, dominated by gangsters who freely run casinos and brothels. Kang persuades first his brother Hu and then Fung to accompany him. Fung and Hu grumble because the only jobs they can find are as dishwashers; Kang does better for himself, securing employment at the glamorous Paradise Club, where all the patrons look sleek and successful and the stage show features suggestively-clad dancers and a sultry singer named Lulu (Shu Qi). All eyes immediately lock on the beautiful Lulu when she takes center stage, but Kang warns them that she belongs to the powerful Boss Hong (Sun Honglei).
Kang has assured Fung and Hu that he can get them jobs at the nightclub, a promise that, as it turns out, can only be fulfilled if the boys agree to fulfill a murderous contract. Kang hadn't planned on a life of crime, or involving his brother and best friend, but he thinks it's the only way he can advance toward his goal of achieving a prosperous lifestyle. Fung balks at the very idea; Hu reluctantly goes along. When things go disastrously wrong for Kang and Hu, it's Fung who shows up at the last moment to save their skins. Later, at a celebratory dinner, Boss Hong basically assures them that he will always have plenty of work for such skilled assassins.
Presto, Kang becomes a merciless gang lieutenant and Fung starts complaining that his entire life is spent killing people. (We haven't seen any evidence of Fung's murderous ways, though Kang is shown cruelly burning an informant to death for no apparent reason.) Evidently to compensate for the damage done to his soul, Fung pursues Lulu, who quickly responds to his friendship. Fung is none too subtle in his admiration for Lulu, which makes one wonder if he is entertaining some kind of death wish, since Boss Hong seems like the jealous type.
Motivational depth is not territory that the film wishes to explore, unfortunately. Nor is there any interest in developing the characters or exploring the historical and societal changes taking place in Shanghai, China, or the world at large. The narrative remains resolutely focused on the dipsy-doodle would-be romance between Fung and Lulu, alternating with brief scenes of the dead-eyed Kang, the cool Boss Hong, and his unhappy enforcer Mark (Chang Chen) as they deal with rival gangs and dispense of their enemies. Blood Brothers rarely sticks its nose out of the Paradise Club, save for forays into nearby streets and an occasional peek into Lulu and Fung's undistinguished living quarters.
Beyond its narrative deficiencies, the biggest disappointment is that the film never catches fire. Alexi Tan began his career as a photographer before moving into films; it's difficult to avoid the impression that every scene is lit as though it were a photograph, with starkly dramatic shadows slicing into and across faces and bodies. The light source is rarely realistic. Given that approach, one might think that the rest of the film would be equally stylized, but that's not the case. Timmy Yip's costuming is impeccable and Alfred Yau's production design is beautiful and period-appropriate. Everything looks sumptuous, not overdone, but the actors cannot break through the torpor that dominates the proceedings. (As an example, Shu Qi looks absolutely gorgeous, but doesn't have much to do besides pouting and yearning.) When violence periodically breaks out, it should change the mood or bring things to a climax; instead it's just a temporary upward blip before everything settles back down into routine.
Tan is quoted in the press notes as saying that he wanted to make a contemporary story in a period setting; he wanted to create iconic Chinese cowboys to rival the Western figures of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Those are good ambitions, and maybe he'll get there some day. For now, the glossy, pretty people on display in Blood Brothers are more akin to interchangeable magazine models than rugged, individualistic cowboys. The story and its execution are far too tepid to make most people care what happens.