Saturday, April 03, 2021

Chow Yun-Fat Reluctantly Returns to His Triad Roots (with a Wong Kar-Wai side-trip): Flaming Brothers & Triads: The Inside Story

Here's how choosing movies goes for me right now: I was going to watch the 2017 Godzilla on Wednesday night, but since it was 3-D and I didn't want to try and eat with the glasses on, I figured I'd watch something short-ish before hand, and the 95-minute Flaming Brothers seemed to be a good choice. By the time it was over, though, it was too late to start a two-hour-plus back half, so I looked through the "unwatched Hong Kong" shelf, figured Triads would make a good double feature, and there you go.

Maybe I should have grabbed Haunted Cop Shop and done a "yes, Wong Kar-Wai wrote these things" pairing instead, since I wasn't terribly fond of Triads. I joked about getting that and Eagle Shooting Heroes out when the Coolidge was playing WKW's movies virtually back in December, because sometimes I love digging the stuff people did before they became auteurs out and reminding folks that they weren't fully formed, even though one of the perks of becoming a big name is that you get to put those behind you. John Sayles is the guy who made Lone Star, not the guy who wrote killer-animal movies for Roger Corman.

And yet, as you see in the review, you don't have to stretch Flaming Brothers too far to see it as a WKW film. He'd soon favor introversion over bullets in his expressions of affection, but the passion is familiar and there's a story about unrequited love to be found here if you're inclined to look. Jeff Lau - who is credited as a co-writer on IMDB but shares executive producer credit with Wong on HKMDB - would produce Wong's first few directorial efforts, and later have fruitful partnerships with Stephen Chow and Corey Yuen.

Anyway, now I'm sad that Wong never re-teamed with Chow Yun-Fat after this, so far as I can see, because I'd love to see what that movie looks like. I'm also adding See You Tomorrow/The Ferryman to my next HK disc order, because the fact that he co-wrote a flashy comedy/drama for someone else to direct in the middle of what seems like a long idle period and it didn't travel kind of fascinates me.

Gong woo lung foo dau (Flaming Brothers)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The Hong Kong film industry is not, I suppose, that much wilder than any other. There is high and low art wherever people make movies, and a lot of people famed for the former cut their teeth on the latter; those early movies just don't always travel like the others. Still, it's nevertheless kind of odd to see Wong Kar-Wai's name show up as the writer of something like Flaming Brothers, the sort of bombastic "heroic bloodshed" movie that star Chow Yun-Fat is best known for but which seems to be the antithesis of the romances full of longing which made Wong an arthouse favorite around the world.

Fifteen, twenty years ago, Tien got caught stealing rice from a Catholic orphanage in Macao by Ka-Hsi, but the kind-hearted girl hides him and starts bringing him food, although when she is adopted by a Hong Kong family, Tien and his brother Alan are soon backsliding. Now, they're up-and-comers in the underworld - and canny about how to rise - although they don't offer drugs in their clubs and brothels. As local godfather Kao (Patrick Tse Yin) recruits Alan (Alan Tang Kwong-Wing) to negotiate with an arms dealer in Thailand (Fong Yau), Tien (Chow Yun-Fat) learns that one of the teachers of his friend Richard's son is Ka-Hsi (Pat Ha Man-Jik), at the school housed in her old orphanage, no less. As Tien is inspired to go straight, Alan is setting his criminal ambitions higher, on a collision course with Kao.

The subtitles didn't make it entirely clear whether Tien and Alan are literal brothers or brothers-in-arms, and truth be told, I hadn't considered that it might not be the former until someone started making cracks about the other criminals thinking they were gay until Tien started dating Ka-Hsi. The filmmakers don't necessarily lean into it, and certainly don't confirm it, but it's interesting to watch the film through that lens, from how performatively Alan responds to "Uncle Pui" plying him with women to his relationship with girlfriend Jenny (Jenny Tseng) to how the pair are tied together even after one marries. A lot of operatic crime movies will elicit laughs as the sworn brothers' devotion, underscored with Cantopop ballads, plays as campy, but putting the idea out there gives Alan an extra layer or two, and lets the final shootout play a little more earnestly than it might have otherwise.

And that last bit of gunplay is wonderfully over-the-top; for all that Alan comments earlier in the movie that he's just doing crime, not a coup, a lot of people catch a lot of bullets. There are only three or four big action set-pieces, but director Joe Cheung Tung-Cho and the action teams led by Stephen Tung Wai design some nifty set-pieces: The ones in Macao are impressive for just how many people are crammed in a tight space with guns without it becoming completely incoherent, while the chase in Thailand takes advantage of having more room to play to get a better look at what's going through Alan's mind as it's going on. Enough bullets are spit out that it's no surprise that the finale is eventually about everyone scrambling for the gun that has one shot left, but it never feels like overkill. It's always underlining some sort of emotional peak.

It's always fun to watch the brothers themselves, who each have a different sort of charisma. Alan Tang's eponymous character may not be as closeted or in denial as one might speculate, but Tang is terrific at giving the impression that he's pouring an excess amount of passion into whatever he's doing, for better or often for worse. Chow Yun-Fat, was still kind of baby-faced when this came out in 1987, and it lets him play Tien as often being kind of an earnest dork while still being effortlessly cool. Chow captures how this guy looks equally appropriate with a gun in his hand or managing a 7-11, in large part because there's no doubt how much he loves the people who have brought him to either situation.

Knowing what the writer would go on to do afterward, it's tempting to maybe see a little more artistry in the melodrama of Flaming Brothers to elevate it over its pulpy contemporaries, or perhaps ascribe Wong's later successes to his genre roots, and it's not exactly wrong to do so, even if he was mostly just trying to earn a living in the movie business at the time. It doesn't really matter, as the end result is that Flaming Brothers is a better-than-average movie of its type, although I must admit that Wong never having Chow Yun-Fat appear in one of his later movies now seems like quite the missed opportunity.

Also at eFilmCritic

Ngoh joi hak se wooi dik yat ji (Triads: The Inside Story)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There is, somewhere inside Triads: An Inside Story, a pretty good black comedy wanting to come out, but which never does. I kind of wonder what happened here - did things just fizzle? Did casting a star like Chow Yun-Fat in the lead skew the producers toward playing it straight? Or did they just not realize that the gold here was in just what sort of fish out of water his character was, seeing it as just one element of the crime story?

There is, after all, something really striking about the visuals in the opening, when the bright green lawn surrounding Lee Man-Ho's house in the suburbs when his father calls from a boat on its way to a dock-side meeting house on a Hong Kong island emphasizes just how Americanized the expatriate son is, and how utterly useless he and his fancy business degree will be when the father's triad lieutenants want him to take over the organization. Lee (Chow) wants no part of it and even beyond that has no real feel for it, but there seldom seems to be a real twist of the knife as he stumbles through awkward reunions with people he last saw 15 years ago and a turf war, or a real horror that entrusting this enterprise to Ho, as tradition requires, might be more destructive than just dissolving or fighting over it. It seems like there are sharp satirical points to be made about the exodus of Hong Kong's best and brightest (and most well-connected) that was going on before the handover, and how those who left wouldn't be Hong Kongers any more, but it eventually becomes little more than just a gang-honor movie.

(At least, that's how it plays for me; maybe HK folks see nuances I can't help but miss.)

It's a bit of a bummer, because watching it as a double feature with Flaming Brothers highlights what a slick, well-produced movie it is, with Chow leading a cast of fine character actors who know that they've got to play it a bit larger-than-life but never tipping over into obvious parody or camp. It looks great, with future directorial workhorse Herman Yau Lai-To shooting it without a lot of fuss but making it look very nice, and both he and director Taylor Wong Tai-Loi seem to share a great eye for the character(s) of the city. The action is nicely done.

I can't help but wonder what this movie would have looked like had screenwriter Nam Yin's brother Ringo Lam directed it. Wong made a handful of modest hits, but this feels like the sort of movie where Lam could have gotten belly-laughs from the absurdity and put something fierce underneath when lesser filmmakers are only seeing what's on the page.

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