Surfing on the Heroic Bloodshed wave initiated mostly by John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films, starring one of the genre’s biggest stars in the person of Chow Yun Fat, written by Hong Kong cinema luminaries Wong Kar Wai and Jeff Lau, Joe Cheung’s Flaming Brothers has a pedigree that’s hard to ignore. Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang star as brothers (in the sense that they’re orphans who grew up in poverty looking after each other) who’ve made it big in the Triads. But while Tang looks to solidify his position and broaden the scope of his operations, Chow simply wants out, having rekindled a childhood love (Pat Ha), a catholic nurse who is averse to violence and the Triad lifestyle. When Tang’s feud with a mob boss (Patrick Tse) escalates irreparably, Chow must choose between love and brotherhood.
Given the involvement of Wong Kar Wai, one could expect Flaming Brothers to belong to the more arty section of Heroic Bloodshed movies, like for instance Patrick Tam’s superb My Heart is That Eternal Rose. But the truth is it’s a fairly straightforward iteration ; there’s type-casting (Chow Yun Fat as the more light-hearted of the brothers, Patrick Tse as a slimy Triad boss, Norman Chu as a complete scumbag…), there’s drawn-out nightclub scenes, there’s ample collateral damage (a scene where the brothers’ henchman sees his family wiped out is rather hard to watch), and of course there’s a final scene of massacre to earn that ‘Bloodshed’ label, here a shootout in a stable that seems to want to turn the ‘endless ammunition’ tenet of the genre by featuring a staggering amount of moments where the characters realize their gun is empty. It’s a fine finale, and though the final heroic sacrifice doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s suitably over-the-top.
Chow Yun Fat actually plays a character that is more thoughful and less rambunctious than in his other Heroic Bloodshed films of the time and his soft-spoken performance completely overshadows Alan Tang’s bland portrayal of the older brother. As a result the all-important chemistry between the brothers is lacking, which undermines the film’s ambition in tragedy. In a role that seems cut for someone of Adam Cheng or Ti Lung’s stature, Tang leaves no mark and even his romantic subplot with the strikingly plain Jenny Tseng is beffudling : they meet when a Thaï mob boss ‘gives’ her to him as a present : he orders two hookers and makes her watch… Classy. Then when they become romantically involved (however did that happen) and he’s giving her a tour of his house, he gratuitously locks her up in a closet… So romantically whimsical. Chow Yun Fat on the other hand gets a touching love story with a childhood flame affectingly played by the great Pat Ha. Her character is a bit on the dry side however, her only trait being her dedication to charity. But after all the very nature of romantic subplots in such films is to underline by their blandness the much stronger bond that exists between the brothers/friends. ‘Homoerotic’ is the wrong word, as there is no trace of eroticism in their relation ship and the way it is shown. ‘Homoplatonic’ sounds weird but fits better.
Long Story Short : Though enjoyable, Flaming Brothers is marred by a lack of chemistry between its leads and is mostly by-the-numbers Heroic Bloodshed. Chow Yun Fat and a few unusual touches make it worthwhile nevertheless. ***