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Flaming Brothers
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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe not 'elevated', but still a cut above."
4 stars

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 <I>Flaming Brothers</I> 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.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34307&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/04/21 06:35:06
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USA
  N/A (NR)

UK
  N/A (18)

Australia
  N/A (MA)


Directed by
  Joe Cheung

Written by
  War-Kai Wong

Cast
  Yun-Fat Chow
  Alan Tang
  Pat Ha
  Patrick Tse



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