Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Blood Brothers (or, Why I Don't Like Chang Cheh Films)

I'm going to tackle Chang Cheh's The Blood Brothers today. Ironically, the two sites I rely on for my Hong Kong reviews -- and Hong Kong Cinema - View From The Brooklyn Bridge -- both feature reviews of the film written (apparently) before the IVL/Celestial DVD was released and written by persons other than the main people behind those sites. There are links below to those reviews.

I've watched 115 or so Shaw Brothers films and I'm still not entirely a fan of Chang Cheh. I know why his films are important. I know what stylistic changes he brought to the wuxia and martial arts genres but I don't entirely enjoy the films and that's what matters to me.

So I sort of put off watching this famous title for as long as I could.

1973's The Blood Brothers opens with an exciting mix of action, punctuated by freeze-frame moments, and the actual film credits.

Half-screen images of the cast appear:

"David Chiang as Chang Wen Hsiang
Ti Lung as Ma Hsin I
Chen Kuan Tai as Huang Chung
Ching Li as Mi Lan.."

As the shackled-but-still-smiling David Chiang is brought into the Ching Dynasty court, in what seems a quintessential moment for the actor, the story proper begins.

The ministers (Cheng Miu and Wong Ching Ho) look down in judgment as Chang Wen Hsiang begins recounting how he murdered royal minister Ma Hsin I.

As Chang writes his confession, the scene shifts back to 9 years earlier when Chang and his godbrother, Huang Chung, were roaming the countryside as bandits.

In the first extended sequence, as Huang Chung and Chang Wen Hsiang practice their martial arts on a verdant hillside, against an impossibly blue sky, they are approached by Ma Hsin I. The stately Ti Lung battles the two bandits and, eventually, as the music swells the two take the money offered by the man after besting -- but not killing -- him in battle.

It's a scene of arrogant men trying to prove their worth, quite simply. I can see why a lot of people don't get off on this machismo. It's the difference between John Ford and Sam Peckinpah; they both made Westerns but they both also had wildly different views on humanity.

If Kurosawa was interested in the human moments amid the bloodshed, then Chang Cheh is interested in how the human moments lead to bloodshed. Or how natural male egoism fuels violence.

Still, there's a delight in those moments of bloodshed that is decidedly the opposite of Kurosawa, to compare two directors of Asian period epics.

Chang Cheh would have filmed the ending of Sanjuro in an entirely different manner, it goes without saying.

I know it's silly to compare the two but it's easier for me to use this method to figure out how to articulate what Chang Cheh is doing that I don't like and why, when others use similar-styled violence, it works for me.

After Ti Lung's Ma Hsin I gives Chen Kuan Tai's Huang Chung and David Chiang's Chang Wen Hsiang the kind of longing look young lovers give each other, the three are partners, ridding the land of other gangs of bandits.

This scene didn't work for me and it's so rushed in the film as to be a bit forced -- part of it is just spoken as Chang Wen Hsiang continues to write his confession.

But, no matter, the three are "blood brothers" and that's what the film's about.

A raid on the mountaintop stronghold of bandit leader Fan Mei Sheng provides a great, if not entirely thrilling, sequence. As you watch David Chiang, Ti Lung, and Chen Kuan Tai battle their way into hordes of extras, you do get a sense of seeing something special; this is clearly an "important" scene in Hong Kong cinema.

I never lost myself in the moment the way I do routinely with any Cheng Pei-Pei wuxia film.

However, my pure enjoyment of that scene was followed by the laughable -- and rightly so -- scene where Ching Li's Mi Lan moons over a sweaty handkerchief after Ti Lung has wiped his face with it -- going to so far as to wrap a flower in the rag!

I'm sorry -- and I know this film was made nearly 40 years ago -- but this was just ridiculous. I've watched a lot of Shaw period action films and, while they are dated and unrealistic, there was never a moment as flat-out silly as this one.

It's hard for me to enjoy a film with characters this...cartoonish. Where's the humanity that makes them real and relateable?

What audience member, with the exception of perhaps a 10-year-old female Ti Lung fan in 1973, would have reacted with a straight face to this kind of stuff?

So, by now, Ma Hsin I has taken over that mountaintop fortress and completely charmed Chang Wen Hsiang and Huang Chung, as well as Mi Lan. The men worship the leader like a god, according to Wen Hsiang's confession, and soon Mi Lan is also in the mortal deity's spell.

Ma Hsin I takes the civil service exam and joins the government of the Ching Dynasty while remaining in contact with his "gang" back home.

So when Huang Chung and Chang Wen Hsiang next see Ma Hsin I how do we know he's changed? Why it's the ole villainous mustache! Even in 1973, this was a bit of a cliche, wasn't it?

It's like watching David Hasselhoff play his evil twin on a Knight Rider episode.

Luckily, Ti Lung doesn't ham it up but the device is still a distraction.

The trio are partners again and, in a montage, we see them roaming the countryside battling bandits and emerging victorious quite easily; only Chen Kuan Tai presents a believable martial figure in these scenes as David Chiang bests his opponents with a little too much ease.

But despite the triumphs in this man's world, Ti Lung's Ma Hsin I still longs for Mi Lan.

That's really all of the plot that I need, or care, to relate.

I think The Blood Brothers succeeds -- when it does succeed -- largely on the strength of the leading trio of David Chiang, Ti Lung, and Chen Kuan Tai. No way this would have worked with Jimmy Wang-Yu in any of the three leading roles!

Still, intellectually I know why The Blood Brothers is important but I had more fun watching The Twelve Gold Medallions and I'm not ashamed to admit that, unpopular though such a sentiment might be with certain HK fanboy elements.


Here's a review from written before the film was remastered and reissued on DVD.

And Brian's site has a review as well.

The DVD features interviews with David Chiang (14 minutes) and Ching Li (10 minutes) and both have English subtitles.

You can order The Blood Brothers on DVD here.