Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blood Ties (2009)

Original title: Huan hun

Just after he has acquired proof for corruption in the police force, cop Shun (David Leong) is murdered by gangsters whose boss has an additional personal grudge against Shun. Before he dies, Shun also has the dubious luck to see his wife Ah Mei murdered and her corpse raped.

The only witness to the crime is Shun's thirteen year old sister Qing (Joey Long), who was hidden away in the traditional cupboard. The aftermath of the business is just as nasty and unfair as what happened to Shun and Ah Mei. The press seems convinced that the cop's death is proof of him being corrupt, and the police doesn't seem all that interested in protecting Shun's honour or the peace of mind of his mother (Cheng Pei Pei).

On the night of the seventh day after Shun's death - the traditional day of the return of his spirit, his sister disappears from her mother's house only to appear blood-spattered at the home of Shun's former partner. There, the girl explains to the at first unbelieving cop that she isn't Qing, but Shun possessing his sister's body to take vengeance on the people responsible for his death. Through a rather complicated (and cheating) flashback structure, Shun then goes further into the backstory, showing all the nasty details of his murder the film has been mum about until now, and then reports about the way he has already taken out his anger on two of his murderers. Now Shun plans to kill the true corrupt member of the police force - whom he also takes as being responsible for tipping off the gangsters - but he needs his old partner's help to kill the traitor at the proper place for his own spirit to be able to go back to the afterlife and reincarnation.

Chai Yee Wei's Blood Ties starts out looking like an attempt to put the traditional ghostly vengeance storyline into a slightly different context, openly doubting the propriety of taking vengeance at all. The longer the film goes on, the less correct this early impression becomes. The "vengeance is probably not such a good thing" part of the script becomes more and more perfunctory as the flashbacks add more and more nastiness to the gangsters' backgrounds, until their brutal (and I mean "penis-cut-off-and-stuffed-in-mouth" brutal) demises seem to be perfectly agreeable ends for them.

Structurally, Blood Ties tries to marry its vengeance tale to the cyclical feeling, subjective flashback form a lot of Asian "twist" movies prefer. It's one of those movies that shows flashbacks but does not signal their extreme subjectivity (not that Shun is actually lying, he just leaves details out that are then added in a later repetition of the same flashback) very well. Unlike a lot of other movies of this type, Blood Ties does not use this technique so heavily that it becomes annoying; in fact, for most parts, the structure gives the film a rhythm that nicely intertwines the nasty violence and slower scenes of somewhat softer emotions.

Chai is good enough of a director to avoid the classical trap of the much too over-constructed final twist that seems nearly mandatory in this sort of movie. Sure, I was thinking to myself something like "well, that was a bit much" once the final one-and-a-half twists began, but these twists are far from ruinous and even fit the themes and title of the film well enough.

Chai's direction style is from the school of "stylish yet gritty", and gives the film a tightness and an understanding of gangster film tropes that fits the horror movie it actually is quite nicely.

Add to that rather strong performances by Cheng Pei Pei (in a real role in a real movie, and not a dreadful cameo in an even more dreadful movie like that last Street Fighter thing) and Joey Long, and you have a perfectly decent film that packs quite an emotional punch (in fact, surely too large of one for some viewers; if you can't abide the combination of teenagers and violence in your films, you better stay away) in two of its more graphic scenes.

Blood Ties weaknesses are quite obvious, too. As always, there are one or two small holes in the film's plot (but not in the construction of its flashbacks, fortunately), one or two other elements that stretch belief even in a film featuring vengeful ghosts and the family relations who enable them (an aspect of the movie that's important for its thematic resonance, but difficult to talk about without going in much too spoiler-laden territory even for my tastes), and - probably most problematic - the fact that this is just another film about vengeance from beneath the grave that doesn't put a truly original angle on the trope. The film's few attempts at putting the ghost's vengeance in the context of Buddhist morality unfortunately don't amount to much in the long run.

Still, Blood Ties is well worth the time it takes watching it.


No comments: