Three childhood friends from the sticks climb the greasy pole of the ’30s Shanghai underworld in “Blood Brothers,” an enjoyable but lightly scripted crimer that plays like a sketch for a broader, more epic yarn. Shot through with references to John Woo (who produced) and Sergio Leone — but rarely achieving the deep, tragic resonance of either — it’s still an impressive debut by Western-trained helmer Alexi Tan, a onetime stills-photographer who marshals his pan-Chinese star cast with visual aplomb. Pic tanked on Hong Kong release in August but did better in China; for Western markets, warm ancillary looms.
Story is largely told as a flashback, as Feng (Daniel Wu) surveys a scene of carnage in snowy Shanghai — a classic movie image referring to winter-set films of the time — and asks in v.o.: “Why did we come to this place?”
The simple answer is: fame and fortune. But as the pic flips back a while, to show the trio in their home village of Zhujiajiao, close to Shanghai, it’s clear they’re very different characters. Feng is the principled romantic, who falls for pretty Su Zhen (Lulu Li, aka Li Xiaolu from “Xiu Xiu”); Kang (Mainland hunk Liu Ye) is the ambitious muscle, who protects family and friends; and Kang’s kid brother, Hu (Taiwan’s Tony Yang, from “Formula 17”), is the nervous type in his bro’s shadow.
Early scenes showing them as young men in rural China have a genuine charm, even though the onscreen chemistry between the three thesps is never as natural as it should be. Still, the pic never tarries, and soon, on Kang’s suggestion, they’re in Shanghai, pulling rickshaws or waiting tables.
Hu, who works in the ritzy Paradise Night Club, gets them in one evening, just in time to see star chantoosie Lulu (Taiwan’s Shu Qi) perform. Lulu is also the private property of the club’s owner, Boss Hong (mainland thesp Sun Honglei, in a standout perf of casual villainy).
Through a series of coincidences that involve Feng rescuing Hong’s wounded chief henchman, Mark (Taiwan’s Chang Chen), the trio start working for Hong. Kang soon relishes the power and violence, while Feng is more circumspect; the latter is also used as a doormat by Lulu, who’s conducting a secret affaire with Mark. At the hour point, the pic turns considerably darker when all these tangled emotions start to combust and Kang makes a bid for power.
With the help of a classy tech team, including Hong Kong p.d. Alfred Lau (“2046”) and costume designer Tim Yip (“A Better Tomorrow,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), helmer Tan brings off one after another action or atmosphere set-piece, with Michel Taburiaux’s succulent widescreen lensing adding further texture. It’s still backlot ’30s Shanghai rather than real-looking ’30s Shanghai, but it has more flavor and color than several recent big productions.
What the movie lacks is really large set-pieces that give the characters a heroic stature and the whole story a long-limbed feel. It also lacks dialogue that’s more than just functional.
As the ruthless big boss, Sun dominates in a way that only fellow mainlander Liu, as his equally ruthless protege, comes close to approaching. Chang is OK as the two-timing henchman, but Wu and Yang barely convince in their roles. Among the women, Shu Qi has the star wattage to bring off her chanteuse role, but looks too modern; Li is fine as Feng’s hometown love.
In-jokes dot the movie, from Woo’s own Lion Rock Prods. stenciled on a crate of guns, to the name of Tan’s own Shanghainese grandmother, Tsiao Hong Ying, used for a singer. Period songs and nightclub routines are glitzy and un-camp, but a little too neat and modern-looking. Original title roughly means “Gate to Paradise,” referring to the central nightclub.