After more than a dozen years in Hollywood, Hong Kong director John Woo has returned to Chinese-language film — and the gangster thriller genre he's best known for — with "Blood Brothers." It will be the closing movie at this year's Venice Film Festival, which starts Wednesday.
The character Mark in the Woo-produced movie is named after the gun-toting, trench-coat wearing gangster icon portrayed by Chow Yun-fat in the classic 1986 film "A Better Tomorrow."
But the similarities end there. Woo's protege, first-time director Alexi Tan, makes a solid movie, but fails to convey the emotional intensity and brotherly loyalty captured in "A Better Tomorrow."
In 1930s China, three good friends — Feng, Gang and his younger brother Xiao Hu — leave their small village to pursue riches in cosmopolitan Shanghai. Led by Gang, they befriend a ruthless local gangster who runs a nightclub. Caught up in a life of crime, the trio's friendship breaks down, ending in bloodshed.
Perhaps that is Tan's first mistake: choosing such a generic gangster-themed plot line. The choice of old Shanghai as a setting is also a cliche.
The production design is exquisite, thanks in part to the meticulous work of Oscar-winning art director Tim Yip. The dapper double-breasted men's suits and bowler hats give the movie a Dick Tracy-like aesthetic. The women wear snug-fitting, Chinese-style qi pao dresses with long slits.
But the East-meets-West look of pre-communist Shanghai is also one of the most overused motifs in modern Chinese film.
Tan's ultimate failure, however, isn't wardrobe-related.
He doesn't sufficiently justify the bloodbath that the movie degenerates into, with the final massacre resembling the ultra-violent ending to Al Pacino's "Scarface."
In "A Better Tomorrow," Woo justified the violence unleashed by Chow's character, a disgraced, handicapped gangster who's motivated by pride, honor and the desire for revenge.
None of Tan's characters in "Blood Brothers" have that emotional edge. He also does not cultivate the brotherhood of Feng, Gang and Xiao Hu enough.
That's why the apocalyptic ending of the movie rings slightly hollow. Tan reaches for an epic, tragic conclusion, but falls short.
Chinese actors Sun Honglei and Liu Ye (seen in "Dark Matter" with Meryl Streep) deliver strong individual performances as gangsters overcome by evil, but they cannot carry the whole movie.
Hong Kong Movie Close Up: Blood Brothers
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Chinese Title: 天堂口, Tian Tang Kou
Director: Alexi Tan (Chen Yili)
Executive Producers: John Woo, Terence Chang
Release Date: 16 August 2007
Cast: Daniel Wu, Shu Qi, Liu Ye, Tony Yang, Lulu Li (Li Xiaolu), Sun Honglei, Chang Chen