Blood Brothers

Bottom Line: A love affair with art deco chairs and cheongsam chic set in 1930s Shanghai gangland.

Venice Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- "Blood Brothers," a first feature by Alexi Tan, puts the glamour back into the Chinese gangster film by taking it off the mean streets of modern-day Hong Kong, and transporting it to 1930s Shanghai, then known as the Paris of the East.

With a cast second-to-none in the acting or looks department, and backed by a pedigree crew that includes Tim Yip ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Alfred Yau ("2046") as costume and production designers, respectively, the film is perched on the brink of gravitas, but becomes too infatuated with its own artifice to be anywhere near sublime.

Having the names of John Woo and his longtime collaborator Terence Chang attached as producers certainly helps "Blood Brothers" reach out to Woo's Asian/action fan base. The film already got a head start in the festival circuit as the closing film at Venice followed by a run at Toronto. However, the director's rehashed Western cinema vocabulary and the ponderous narrative with stagey dialogue are not so accessible to the mass audience.

Although touted as a remake of Woo's "A Bullet in the Head," the film's title theme of fraternity and betrayal in the hood is a celebration of nostalgic Hollywood gangster films like Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America." Its parallel social theme of the loss of innocence in the migration from rural to urban life is more derivative of Visconti's "Rocco and His Brothers."

Fisherman Fung (Daniel Wu), local ruffian Kang (Liu Ye) and his sidekick brother Hu (Tony Yang) leave their humble village to seek their fortune in metropolitan Shanghai. They are recruited by the Paradise Nightclub, owned by Hong (Sun Honglei, wildly over-acting), a Mafia boss making forays into showbiz. His mistress, sultry chanteuse Lulu, performs some spectacular numbers that give the film its ritziest moments.

Lulu (her name is a tribute to Louise Brooks in "Pandora's Box") is played by Shu Qi. Slinky in see-through sequin gowns and iridescent in silk cheongsams, she is a sensuous goddess in the first order. With her flawless face subtly lit in iconic close-ups, she the single most watchable thing in the film.

The rest of the plot treads familiar waters. Ambitious Kang takes on dodgy missions to rise in the rank-and-file, while Fung becomes his unwilling partner-in-crime in a shoot-out. How a country bumpkin like Fung who has never pulled the trigger could gun down five tough gangsters in a second is anyone's guess. Fung courts danger by pursuing Lulu, then rescuing Hong's top hitman Mark (ice-cool Chang Chen) after the latter's botched attempt to kill Hong.

When Hong orders Kang et al to take out star-crossed lovers Lulu and Mark, loyalties are tested and betrayed. The gate to paradise (the film's Chinese title) becomes a sortie to hell in an operatic finale more pastiche than homage to John Woo.

Irresistible as it is to scour "Blood Brothers" for Woo's imprints, Woo and Tan are as different as Al Capone and Jesse James. While Woo glorified male bonding and macho heroics, Tan's protagonists suffer crises of masculinity. Fung and Hu abhor violence while Mark is as world-weary as Hamlet. Conspicuously missing is Woo's signature bullet ballet. The most lethal weapon is a fountain pen.

A static air pervades the film, with only a few unhurried tracking shots that underscore the director's preference for slow-burning mood and mannerism. Often the camera lingers on an exquisite cuff-link, the perfect finish of a tailored suit or a tastefully lit haze of cigar smoke. Frames are composed in symmetry with the set's art deco interiors and plush furniture. It's all a bit indulgent, this suffusion of textures and accessories with so much significance that style has smothered substance.

CMC Entertainment/Sil-Metropole Organization/Lion Rock
Director: Alexi Tan
Screenwriters: Alexi Tan, Jiang Dan, Tony Chan
Producers: John Woo, Terence Chang
Executive producers: Huang Chinwen, Song Dai
Director of photography: Michel Taburiaux
Production designer: Alfred Yau, Wai Ming
Music: Daniel Belardinelli
Co-producers: David Tang, Yeh Jufeng, Cheri Yeung, Jamie Luk
Costume designer: Tim Yip
Editor: Cheng Long
Fung: Daniel Wu
Lulu: Shu Qi
Mark: Chang Chen
Kang: Liu Ye
Hu: Tony Yang
Boss Hong: Sun Honglei
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating