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Every film industry has an icon; every icon has a back catalogue. Such is the case with Chow Yun-Fat and Flaming Brothers, not usually the first film title to trip off the tongue when considering the film contributions of Hong Kong’s highest profile acting export. This Alan Tang produced vehicle was made two years before Chow Yun-Fat’s big international break in The Killer and is an intriguing addition to the ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ genre so prevalent during 1980’s Hong Kong cinema.

Ah Tien and Alan begin life as orphans on the streets of Macau. Stealing to survive is a way of life for these two enterprising urchins although this cutthroat culture doesn’t always sit pretty with Ah Tien, particularly when he is caught stealing rice by Ka-Hsi. Her ecclesiastical upbringing by the nuns of the island prompt her to forgive Ah Tien’s indiscretion; in return for a regular supply of food and the ritual of grace before eating he promises to stop stealing.

This idyll is shattered when Ka-Hsi has to leave Macau for Hong Kong. Once again Ah Tien and Alan must fend for themselves; after an unsavoury incident in which they come into contact with a gangster for the first time and having seen the fear-induced respect the criminal commands the die is cast.

Flaming Brothers
Flashing forward twenty years, the dynamic duo has made it good, now rising stars in the Macau underworld. On the opening night of their newest club Ah Tien (Chow Yun-Fat) and Alan (Alan Tang) come face to face with the incorruptible police chief (Philip Chan) who vows to clean up their operation. Worse news is to follow when Macau kingpin Kao (Patrick Tse) orders his drugs to be sold from the brothers’ outlets.

Recompense must be paid when Ah Tien and Alan kill several Kao underlings as a polite ‘no’ to his request. Alan heads to Thailand to secure arms from a gunrunning operation and meets a sassy nightclub singer (Jenny Tseng). Meanwhile, back in Macau Ah Tien unexpectedly runs into Ka-Hsi (Pat Ha) and her pious purity provokes him to reconsider his way of life once again.

The brothers are fatefully split upon Alan’s return to Macau but Ah Tien finds that his simple married life with Ka-Hsi is under threat as his past catches up with him after Kao reneges on the deal and Alan needs his help to escape the underworld alive…

Reformed gangsters unable to evade the consequences of their past has been a staple of the hard boiled thriller genre since James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson in the 1930’s and there’s nothing in the premise of Flaming Brothers to suggest that this film is any different. Yet, while this is for the most part accurate, there are subtle differences which, even though not all of them are pulled off successfully, are presumably down to the hand of the esteemed Wong Kar-Wai as screenwriter.

Rather than a simple ABC shoot-‘em-up (although there are plenty of gunplay set pieces) of the usual criminal’s rise and fall, Flaming Brothers is a tale of two relationships. Alan’s liaison with Jenny and Ah Tien’s life changing experience with Ka-Hsi throws the central male pairing into stark relief. Splitting the brothers in different geographical locations entirely is a nice touch in illustrating the burgeoning distance in personal beliefs developing between them. In this way the narrative does seem egregiously episodic with an especially obvious three act structure that suggests Wong Kar-Wai deliberately designed it as such.

Flaming Brothers
What should be questioned is the script’s wild shifts in tone. The action sequences take on an earthy grittiness with more bullets than ballet, slightly away from John Woo’s superior A Better Tomorrow from which it is apparently inspired. A torture sequence involving the killing of a child is one of the most chilling you’ll ever see. Alan and Jenny bicker like a couple from a screwball comedy. Ah Tien and Ka-Hsi emote all they can in a heart-rending romance. Most astonishing of all is a pseudo-musical sequence in which Ah Tien dons make up to entertain some old folks. To its’ credit, Flaming Brothers may never be leaden but it is lumpy to say the least.

Perhaps an advantage of this uneven narrative is that, unusually for a Hong Kong movie, the female leads get plenty of screentime. Jenny Tseng blusters her way through a version of herself that plays like an Asian version of Bette Midler while the excellent Pat Ha is remarkably restrained in her religious persuasion, making the most of a quiet role to beg the question why she hasn’t been seen onscreen more often since 1987.

That said, it would be patently untrue to suggest that Flaming Brothers is not a movie by men, about men, for men. The homoerotic subtext could rarely be more overt, even going so far as to prompt Jenny to bait Alan in two of their exchanges by challenging his sexuality. While not as misogynistic as Peckinpah (whose immense shadow casts a pall over the slo-mo shootout sequences), the women are allowed to shine until being bundled offscreen as the men go about the business of being ‘men’.

Peckinpah is merely one reference point which director Joe Cheung blends with both Eastern and Western influences. A Better Tomorrow has already been cited but nods must also go the The Wild Bunch, The Godfather, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and, most shamelessly The Terminator in which a couple of shots are reproduced frame for frame.

Keen to make the most of talented cinematographer Jingle Ma, Cheung has conceived many a striking backdrop to the action although there are times when art seems to have become artifice; one scene in particular looks gorgeous but takes place at the beach because it would look great rather than serving any narrative purpose at all.

As such, the use of locations is striking and provides a welcome relief from the usual Hong Kong cityscape. In particular, the use of Bangkok’s Chao Praya river is inspired and the Thai capital’s bustling streets provide a decidedly different backdrop to a tuk-tuk chase which, due to the nature of a 15hp tricycle that croaks like a malfunctioning hairdryer, just can’t be taken too seriously.

In the foreground, Chow Yun-Fat and Alan Tang make an eminently watchable central pairing. Chow Yun-Fat cranks his natural charisma into top gear to put his partner in the shade; not once will you catch him acting whereas energetic producer Alan Tang’s matinee idol looks can’t mask the fact that he’s not an enormously talented performer. Credit also must go to Patrick Tse who gladly chews any available scenery with gusto as big boss Kao.

Oh yes, what scenery there is to get through! Perhaps at the behest of Alan Tang, the costume and set design is, with the exception of Chow Yun-Fat and Pat Ha, uniformly hideous as the garish primary colours firmly root Flaming Brothers in 1980s aesthetic hell. Oddly enough, or not as the case may be, this is a large part of the film’s curious charm.

Flaming Brothers
Given what the audience has come to expect from a Hong Kong Legends DVD release, Flaming Brothers suffers slightly in comparison to more illustrious previously available products from the label. However, with HKL setting the bar so high for Hong Kong films that may not have been cared for in the most thoughtful way, this is by no means a bad transfer.

Anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.78:1 the image is, granted, a little on the soft side but colours are bright and detail levels are marvellous: every floral pattern or pin-stripe of the awful ‘80s wardrobe and set interiors is really well represented with no blooming.

Blacks are not as deep as they could be and shadow detail is lacking somewhat but these deficiencies rest with the print available for restoration. Contrast levels are fine its definitely doubtful that Flaming Brothers can look any better than this.

HKL have pulled out all the stops to provide a Dolby Digital 5.1 in the original Cantonese language. Given the state of the original audio elements, it’s a commendable effort with a clean presentation that bears no hiss or crackles. However, the sharpness of the soundtracks lays bare the origins of the movie having been recorded without sound as the overdubbed dialogue and effects (particularly the limp sound library gunshots) appear hollow and there’s not much channel separation during the action sequences.

Very little use is made of the rears as even the sparse music is fed from the front of the soundstage. At least with the balance so in favour of the front speakers the dialogue is always clear despite having plenty of bass to the male voices.

An alternative English dub is also available that should be avoided if at all possible. The voice actors are truly dreadful with lip-synching woefully wide of the mark. Unforgivably the English dialogue departs radically from the original Cantonese (Ah Tien is renamed Gary for a start!) and some of the essential interplay of addressing one’s superior in the Oriental underworld is abandoned altogether. A prime example of why dubbing just doesn’t do justice to the original material.

Flaming Brothers
Any DVD benefits from a Bey Logan Audio Commentary and this release is no exception. Logan can be reliably called upon to get through an entire movie dispensing essential information seemingly without drawing breath and this is the case with Flaming Brothers.

Beginning by sketching the background to the film in the context of the boom in Hong Kong gangster movies caused by A Better Tomorrow, Logan goes on to detail some of the more perplexing aspects of the production. For a puzzled Occidental audience, Logan reveals not only just why Macau is the definitive logistical and narrative location for Flaming Brothers but also the reason behind Chow Yun-Fat’s use of Anita Mui war paint style makeup in the old person’s entertainment sequence.

The commendable commentator focuses on the development of Alan Tang’s career in trying to become a Dai Gore (literally ‘Big Brother’) from his previous idol standing, all the while giving an exhaustive low-down on everybody else involved in the movie. Having spoken at length of him in previous commentaries, Logan skimps a bit on Chow Yun-Fat and in this respect picking up a copy of the HKL’s <a href=””>The Killer</a> DVD would be more beneficial in learning more about the superstar.

Next up comes an Interview With Director Joe Cheung. With a duration of a healthy 45 minutes, this is a decent alternative to a commentary. Despite not speaking in English, the director is afforded English subtitles and expands on aspects of Logan’s contribution while offering insight to the few areas that the film critic didn’t have time to cover!

Tackling the question of melodrama in Hong Kong movies, Cheung also cites the influence of European films in the making of Flaming Brothers, particularly Le Samourai and Is Paris Burning? in which Alan Tang’s resemblance to Alain Delon is more than merely incidental. For their contributions to Flaming Brothers due reverence is given to Wong Kar-Wai, Jingle Ma and Chow Yun-Fat with Cheung pretty scathing about Alan Tang’s acting ability.

The director goes on to focus on Hong Kong cinema as a whole. As the President of the Hong Kong Director’s Guild, Cheung addresses the increasingly thorny issue of piracy damaging the sustained production of movies in the province and outlines his vision for the future of Hong Kong filmmaking in the face of fierce competition from the emerging international clout of Japanese, Korean and Thai cinema.

In addition to the fascinating interview is a UK Promotional Trailer and an Original Theatrical Trailer for Flaming Brothers. The latter, with a duration of 2 minutes and 10 seconds, is easily the more interesting as the former, with a duration of 1 minute 50 seconds, suffers from the cheese-laden intervention of gravely voice over man.

Flaming Brothers
The final special features available on the disc are a series of promotional information and trailers for recent and forthcoming releases from the Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia labels. The HKL section includes The Killer, Crime Story, Police Story 2, The Swordsman and Dragon From Russia. In the Premier Asia section Takashi Miike’s controversial Japanese thriller Ichi The Killer, the Thai epic Bang-Rajan and Korean martial arts masterpiece Bichunmoo are featured.

All of the extras on the disc can be accessed by a neatly designed set of menus, some of which are animated, which carry loops of the film’s score.

Even with all the talent in the world not every classic actor can star in a classic film every time he steps in front of a camera; for Chow Yun-Fat Flaming Brothers is a prime example of this. Alongside Pat Ha he is easily the strongest suit that Joe Cheung’s thriller has to offer yet not even he can elevate this mish-mash of genres and ideas into something above its mediocre station.

Once again Hong Kong Legends have presented a technically impressive disc, re-mastering and making the most of some sub-standard original audio and video elements to make a fine little package. The extras may lack quantity but the Logan commentary and Joe Cheung interview are perhaps worth owning more than Flaming Brothers itself. However, on the basis of purely the film, this one is for Chow Yun-Fat completists only.