Flaming Brothers Review
Flaming Brothers is a Chow Yun-Fat title that caught my eye on several occasions back when the Made In Hong Kong VHS releases were the main source of Heroic Bloodshed goodness. Yet despite the obvious draw of Chow I always looked upon it as a secondary title in comparison to his other work, and indeed the various reviews I had read did not suggest otherwise. Now almost five years later I have the HKL DVD in my hands and the first thing I noticed during the opening credits is how none other than Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love) is the credited screenwriter. Immediately I began to wonder - had I been wrongly passing up a rare collaboration between Chow Yun-fat and Wong Kar-wai? Well the simple answer is no. As the film progressed any enthusiasm I had gained was sadly diminished quite swiftly as despite some moments of greatness perpetuated through Chow there is nothing here to suggest anything but another by-the-numbers Hong Kong gangster movie that Wong Kar-wai just so happened to work on previous to his own personal and much deserved success.
However, a typical Hong Kong gangster movie with Chow Yun-fat in a leading role will always have something to offer and Flaming Brothers is no exception. As orphans on the streets of Macau best friends Ah Tien and Alan must face many hardships and throughout these difficult years they develop a bond that will last until their deaths. One day while searching for some food Ah Tien is befriended by Ka-hsi, a young girl who teaches him that stealing is not the only way to feed himself but when she has to leave for Hong Kong Ah Tien and Alan are too weak to choose the honest path through life and decide the only way to get ahead is to become someone everyone looks up to through fear.
Several years later we see that Ah-Tien (Chow Yun-Fat) and Alan (Alan Tang) are running a successful nightclub business as a pair of relatively decent gangsters (considering their chosen careers) who steer clear of drugs. We soon discover they are not phased by the violent element of their world so despite the glamorous facade are not much different from their fellow triads. As it transpires one such violent encounter lands Ah Tien and Alan in the middle of a gang war with the local crime boss Kao (Patrick Tse Yin). To make amends for killing one of Kao's men Alan must head off to Thailand for a deal that sees him become sucked into a world of guns and prostitutes while Ah Tien is left in Macau only to find the girl who left such an impression on him as a young boy has returned. This development sets off a love story between Ah Tien and Ka-hsi (Pat Ha) that eventually sees Ah Tien and Alan go their separate ways as one chooses a normal life while the other continues down that destructive path of the gangster world leaving only the often-tragic bond of a chivalrous nature between them.
The actual concept and initial setup for Flaming Brothers is handled particularly well with the first half of the movie flowing smoothly between scenes while proving to be entertaining at the same time. Unlike some directors Joe Cheung manages this by keeping the exposition sequences short and to the point which results in a finely crafted opening that outlines the difference in approach taken by Ah Tien and Alan to various situations, then by throwing in a relatively well choreographed gunfight Cheung ensures the action element of the film also gets off to a fine start. These promising beginnings are then built upon with the introduction of a quite charming romantic subplot that sees Ka-hsi come back into Ah Tien's life. This new development gives us an opportunity to see Chow at his very best alongside an actress of Pat Ha's ability as they demonstrate chemistry onscreen that really pulls you in to their innocent and quite sweet romance. Throughout this blossoming relationship we are even treated to a few sequences I was not expecting to see in a film of this genre as Ah Tien is roped into volunteering at an old folks home where he stages a variety show that includes him performing in drag! It is unlikely moments such as these that when combined with the natural performances of Chow and Pat Ha keep you interested in their characters and will no doubt leave you wanting for more as we sadly discover that once their relationship is defined it becomes secondary to that of the gangster storyline.
In stark contrast to the enigmatic charm and very natural portrayal that Chow delivers we see Alan Tang take a more action-star straight faced approach for his side of the story that lacks any real emotion and hence creates little draw to his onscreen persona. To be fair Tang has been dealt a character who is not particularly well written and comes off as a very two-dimensional gangster figure as a result. Even the relationship we see Alan develop with Jenny Tseng's character is cold and not particularly appealing, though you can at the very least say the characters deserve each other. These aspects of the film are certainly well placed in that they serve as a striking contrast to the character and relationship of Ah Tien but combined with a merely adequate and often forced performance from Tang does not make for compelling viewing. Only making matters worse is how the direction of Tangs story felt very slack in comparison to that of Chows with often pointless glamour shots that I can only presume are there to boost Tangs bloated ego. Unfortunately however this is an action movie so not only does Tangs story gradually begin to take precedence over Chows but it soon almost completely replaces it as we see Ah Tien leave for a normal life putting the focus squarely on Alan who by this stage is intent on revenge against Kao.
Fortunately for the viewer we are given a villain portrayed by veteran actor Patrick Tse Yin who brings with him a look and performance that when combined with some utterly ruthless acts of violence (one including a child) make for a character that you want to see crushed by Alan. Making up most of the latter half of the films conflicts between Alan and Kao are two major action sequences that go against the slow-motion balletic nature of the previous years A Better Tomorrow and instead opt for a gritty realism that for me does not work quite as well. Most of the time it would appear as though the actors were simply told to run around and shoot at each other leaving the real impact of these gunfights to be brought home by some really quite gruesome effects that director Joe Cheung is only more than happy to focus on. The final action sequence is however quite well choreographed and sees Alan Tang at his best in the film as he moves around with more confidence than we have previously seen which makes for an energetic showdown that defies all logic - but then who sits down to watch a Hong Kong action movie expecting realism? Sadly a decision was made somewhere along the line to allow these final scenes to outstay their welcome which results in a needlessly protracted conclusion that due to its content both infuriated and ultimately bored me, though I guess it does work within the Heroic Bloodshed genre boundaries.
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is encoded for regions 2 and 4.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen regulars will not be surprised to hear this has been cropped slightly from the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Whether or not this will bother you will ultimately depend on how sensitive you are to such issues. For me personally it causes no major viewing problems and when the transfer looks as good as this I see no reason to kick up a fuss. The print sourced has been cleaned up by the team at HKL to provide us with a near flawless image that frequently impressed me by its detailed textures that are complimented by well-defined colours and solid black levels. The only minor glitches to my eye was the presence of some film grain on the print, minimal edge enhancement and a jerky layer change that add up to little more than minor distractions to an otherwise impressive transfer of an eighties Hong Kong film.
The original Cantonese language audio is presented here in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track that maintains the original stereo mix integrity by focusing attention on the front speakers. Dialogue and sound effects are clear while the latter do occasionally make some use of the 5.1 soundstage, though for the most part the rear speakers are only brought into play for the films score. On the whole this audio experience is exactly what I would hope for as it does the job and nothing more.
The optional English dub is also presented in DD5.1 and is a slighly more active track that utilises the rear speakers a little more, though on my brief spotchecks appeared to muffle sound effects as a result. In terms of the dub quality you will hardly be surprised to hear the voice actors do a terrible job that is often laughable, though I know many fans seem to love this aspect of English dubs so knock yourself out if that is the case. For everyone else (including myself) I would advise you stay well clear and enjoy the film in its original language.
The optional English subtitles are presented in an easy to read white font with a thin black outline to make sure they stand out above the onscreen image. This appears to be a literal translation as it certainly bears little resemblance to the English dub script, while the songs featured in the film are also pleasingly subtitled.
HKL regular Bey Logan returns to the fray and offers another solid audio commentary for our listening pleasure. As we have come to expect Bey covers every major cast and crew member throughout the course of the film while also taking the opportunity to point out those who have gone onto greater things and discuss various nuances of the plot. On one of those very rare occasions I have to say it felt as though Bey was running out of steam mid way through as his comments regarding Alan Tang lacked enthusiasm, fortunately this was only a momentary lapse as he soon got back into his stride and introduced some humour into the mix to keep things flowing nicely
The Interviews section is comprised solely of a 45-minute talk with director Joe Cheung. Speaking in his native Cantonese dialect (optional English subtitles are of course provided) Cheung offers a lengthy and honest discussion on his career that focuses mainly on Flaming Brothers. While discussing the film Cheung offers his thoughts on working with scriptwriter Wong Kar-wai, the four main stars of the film and the various action choreographers. His discussion on these topics was certainly welcome though I found them to be lacking in depth while the frequent movie clips prove to be an unwelcome distraction. The discussion improves greatly however for the last 12-minutes or so where Cheung talks about his role in the Hong Kong Film Directors Guild and the setting up of various other guilds and the reasons behind this. Also integrated into this topic are his thoughts on the Hong Kong film industry and most interestingly his opinion on the state of the acting talent in today's Hong Kong movies (which should raise a few smiles from the viewers). Something fans will also be pleased to see within this interview is the inclusion of a brief clip for the restored A Chinese Ghost Story print that will hopefully be making its way to a HKL DVD in the near future (and I must say it's looking good!).
Rounding off the discs bonus features is a selection of Trailers. Specific to this disc are the original Theatrical and UK Promotional trailers for Flaming Brothers, while you will also find UK Promotional Trailers for a combination of readily available and forthcoming HKL and Premier Asia titles in the Further Attractions section. As with all the bonus material on this disc the trailers are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen.
Despite some early promise Flaming Brothers soon developed into an underwhelming gangster movie that relies very much on the draw of Chow Yun-fat and a few decent action set pieces to keep you entertained making it strictly one for the hardcore fans. Adding to the appeal somewhat is a fine transfer and some genuinely interesting bonus features of the quality we have come to expect from Hong Kong Legends.