Sworn Brothers Review
In recent years, I have enjoyed watching few actors as much as I have enjoyed the work of Andy Lau who has been developing quite a line in playing flawed men. Like many Hong Kong performers, he was simultaneously sold as a heart-throb male lead and a pop singer but in the last few years he has become my favourite Chinese actor. In the Infernal Affairs trilogy, he was the intriguing centre of the films and his final performance was as superb a display of tightly wound nervous breakdown as you could hope to catch in a populist movie. In Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers he played another very morally grey character with great sympathy, and his redeemed trickster in World Without Thieves was another delight that used his ability to play far from decent men well.
Earlier in his career, Lau made quite a lot of formulaic movies but chose some real gems in As Tears Go By and God of Gamblers whilst making action movies, comedies, and romances, and avoiding becoming pigeon-holed in one kind of role. The film on review is an eighties populist brothers in crime piece which casts Lau as a principled triad with his adoptive brother as the policeman charged with taking down his brother's boss. Lau becomes lost in a world of set-ups, divided loyalties, and a strong new romance with wannabe singer Hsiao Hung-Mei. The film proves breathless, entertaining and alternately posits the sympathetic Lau in peril, and then as an avenging angel.
To ground the story, we learn that Lau and his "brother" have been brought up by frail Uncle Pao, and Lau has chosen the world of triads because he wants to earn enough money to go to the USA. None of the family know that Lau is actually the right hand henchman of Yeung, seemingly an entrepreneur and philanthropist but actually a crime kingpin. Yeung has plans to seal up the drugs trade that Lau turns his nose up at, and he will use Lau as a sacrificial pawn in his strategy. Because of his boss' tricks Lau is at risk inside the triad, and soon the police are chasing him for a murder he is tricked into, and his "brother" risks being seen as his accomplice if he doesn't bring in him.
This is a tale that will prove familiar with its elements of Police Story and A Better Tomorrow, the two most successful films of their ilk made in the years previous to this film. The whole plot and character development is far from novel and the sheer number of events which change the direction of the tale is exhausting in what is a real kitchen sink approach to giving the audience something to be excited or concerned about. There are some pretty gruesome scenes of violence with Lau being tortured the worst, and there are a fair number of killings, fights, explosions and endless mendacity from Yeung as he turns all his potential threats against themselves. It is very definitely in the movies favour that a lot of the action is unpredictable and that there is so damn much of it.
The romance is also handled well with Lau and his leading lady starting a reluctant affair which soon become much more involved. The sex scenes are strong for the time and the country that made the film, and Hsiao Hung-Mei is both sexy and determined as the love interest. The key to the film's romance and its whole charisma relies on Lau, who plays his frankly unlikely role with commitment, and he manages to retain our sympathy despite shooting people or causing his family and lover extreme pain. When Lau finally decides to repent and shop Yeung, he has endured the trials of Job and the audience can only despair that this good hearted man is taking the flack for the criminal kingpin.
More critically, the story is bonkers and excessive, filled with instant changes of heart and acts of staggering naivety. The whole dynamic of Lau's being imperilled is based on him lacking the nouse to twig that he is being set up, despite frequent clues and a lack of Moriarty like subtlety from Yeung (he makes Lau get involved in a shooting by basically calling him scaredy-cat). Lau walks into trap after trap and the story never stops to question why a top triad would be so stupid as to go on the run and turn up at his girlfriend's house, his own home and his foster dads. As for the shower scene in the prison hospital, it beggar belief that a man whose whole life has been destroyed by an omniscient gangster would turn his back on so many criminals whilst he is completely undefended.
This though passed for subtlety in the eighties, and the film is very much from those troubling times with dodgy hair, dodgy music, and a conspicuous lack of depth. Compared to the more elegant films that Lau makes now, this may cause some unintentional hilarity or head scratching to the modern viewer, but so would a lot of the Hollywood product of the time that it so cheerfully apes. Populist, surprisingly bloody, and a little silly, Sworn Brothers is an entertaining child of its time.
Don't let my screen shots fool you, this is another standards conversion. The effects of poor conversion are far less noticeable here than in other releases in the Legendary collection and instances of combing and aliasing are thankfully rare. The transfer is at around 1.85:1 on this single layer disc, and it looks like colour and contrast boosting, combined with edge enhancement, have been applied to the original print. Sometimes this works well, but other scenes suffer from poor colour balance and the contrast throughout is strange with dark colours having a purple hue and little variation within them. The image is fair overall and only when watching the alternate ending does it seem to be stronger.
The sound comes in original Cantonese and Mandarin options which seem to be monaural. The Cantonese track has not been restored but the occasions when the score or voices show distortion are few, and the quality is flat if reliable. The English subs are quite bad indeed, it's been a long time since I have seen such a poor effort even on a R3 disc.
The extras include a photo gallery of five lobby card images, the trailer for the film, and the option to watch the film with the alternate ending. The two endings really only differ in their visual quality and their geography - one occurring inside the courtroom and one outside. The second ending is presented in letterboxed format after the film has played anamorphically so the branching is far from seamless!
I'll watch most anything with Lau in it for the reasons I give above, but even I will say that this is a rather throwaway eighties movie that may be worth a cheap dip if you can live with the subs and fair transfer.