The past twelve months have seen the release of three excellent crime films from Cantonese film-makers: Johnnie To’s Leone flavoured, Macau-based flick Exiled; Derek Yee’s drug trade expose Protege; and Brothers, which opened this week at Melbourne’s Chinatown cinema. Directed by Derek Chiu who is more known for his work with Peter Chan’s UFO company, helming quality dramas such as Ah Fai The Dumb. With Brothers, Chiu has created a very canny crime movie: a violent story of prophecy and ascendancy in the Chinese triad world.
Chiu’s film opens with a prologue set in the late 1980’s which involves the two young brothers of the Tam crime family. After their father kills a rival gangster, the brothers are separated, Shun (Eason Chan) is sent to America to be educated, and Yiu (Mui Kui Wai) remains in Hong Kong to learn the family business. Much of this activity is prompted by the family’s shaman (astrologer) who predicts two decades of prosperity followed by a period of great turmoil.
Fast forward twenty years to contemporary Hong Kong and we find the Tam family on the verge of conflict. The father has been shot and critically wounded; allegiances in the triad world are shifting; Shun has returned home with the intention of staying in Hong Kong while Yiu treads carefully as the potential head of the family. The adopted son “Ghostie” (Felix Wong) vows a violent revenge on his stepfather’s attackers.
Believe me, you’re not imagining it when you first see the two adult lead actors. They have been made up to look like Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung and the movie does have more than a passing A Better Tomorrow feel about it. If you remove the cyberscape of Brothers – PCs, mobile phones etc – this film could well be set in the mid-late 1980s.
Eason Chan (Love Battlefield, Golden Chicken)is particularly good as the know-it-all Shun who thinks he can run a large crime family like an IT company. Described by the police as a “white paper”, Shun is determined to leave his mark on the Hong Kong underworld. Whereas Miu Kiu Wai (Wo Hu, Jiang Hu) as Yiu is very much in the stoic Chow Yun-Fat hero mould as the loyal but manipulative heir apparent.
From the outset of Brothers, director Chiu isn’t content with merely retreading charismatic gangsters and numerous well-staged action sequences, he creates and sustains a growing tension that holds the audience for the full length of the film. Along with DOP, Charles Lam, (Isabella) Chiu gives Brothers a slick Milkyway Image sheen. And, some enjoyably cynical touches as shown when the warring crime gangs agree to meet in Bangkok to settle their differences, because “it’s easier to kill people in Thailand”.
Well-known Canto character actor Henry Fong (A Hero Never Dies) is Uncle 9, the gangster attempting to destroy the Tam family. The rage and anger he has stifled for years explodes onto the streets of Hong Kong as he hunts down the Tam brothers.
For all this film’s publicity, Andy Lau’s role is, at best, a secondary part as Inspector Lau, a dedicated detective trying to legally bring down the Tam family business. He is quite relaxed in this role and seems to be enjoying himself as the former in a good cop/bad cop partnership. And if you need final proof of this movie’s origins, watch where the first bullet lands in the opening moments of a protracted gun battle on the crowded streets of Bangkok. This film works on many levels and continually surprises the viewer, right up to and including the downbeat closing shot – starkly framed in a grubby Kowloon side street – which says it all about personal ambition in the triad underworld.
Brothers is a first class Chinese gangster picture and here’s hoping this won’t be the last crime movie director Chiu chooses to make.