||Chai Yee-Wei's debut feature film Blood Ties treads familiar ground as yet another tale of ghosts getting revenge from beyond the grave. But unlike the most famous example of the genre, Alex Proyas's The Crow, the avenging spirit in this film decides to exact his vengeance by proxy. And it's this slight alteration of genre expectations that makes Blood Ties so intriguing to watch.
The bloody events of this supernatural revenge film are set in motion when a police detective named Shun (David Leong) and his beautiful young wife (Maggie Lee) are brutally murdered at the hands of some local gangsters. Oddly, the police don't seem to have a clue who perpetrated the crime, and even worse, they suspect that Shun was actually a dirty cop. Shun, however, would tend to disagree. And a little thing like death isn't going to stop him from voicing his concerns.
Chinese superstition states that the souls of the recently deceased always return on the seventh day after their initial passing. And as fate would have it, Shun does indeed return, but instead of coming back as a reanimated corpse, he decides to inhabit the body of his thirteen-year-old-sister, Qing (Joey Leong). And it is through the vessel of a teenaged girl that Shun then proceeds to exact the bloody retribution for his own demise as well as the rape and murder of his wife.
When Qing disappears in the middle of the night, her mother (Cheng Pei-Pei) rushes to the police station to enlist the help of her son's commanding officer (Kenneth Tsang Kong). Upon her arrival, he's seemingly caught in an awkward position of wanting to help a grieving mother, but also knowing that he plans to condemn her dead son soon afterwards. Unbeknownst to Qing's mother, the reason the police chief is still at the precinct burning the midnight oil is because he's prepping a press release that implicates Shun as a corrupt cop. Meanwhile, Qing/Shun tracks down the guilty parties one-by-one.
As straightforward as that synopsis might seem, there's much more going on here than meets the eye. Structurally, Blood Ties boasts a non-linear narrative, complete with a series of repeated, increasingly disturbing flashbacks, each revealing a little more about Shun, the gangsters, and the double murder than the audience previously thought. Was Shun really a corrupt cop as his superior officer seems to believe? What was the real nature of his murder? And what really happened to his wife?
All of these questions get answered in a brutal, bloody fashion. In fact, flashbacks are so numerous (bordering on tedious) and so gory that the film could easily be re-titled “Bloody Flashbacks.” Still, like the most stylish of horror directors, Chai Yee-Wai successfully creates the impression that you've seen a lot more than you really have, although the depravity on display here is still pretty shocking for a mainstream Singapore film. There's plenty of stuff that wouldn't seem a bit out of place in the glory days of Category-III Hong Kong Cinema.
Expanded from a short film and funded by the Singapore Film Commission, Blood Ties is a visually impressive, narratively arresting revenge/horror movie. Respected Hong Kong actors Kenneth Tsang Kong and Cheng Pei-Pei enhance the proceedings considerably with their presence, and local actor David Leong makes for a sympathetic hero in his flashback scenes as Shun. But the key actor in the film is Joey Leong. The Malaysian actress acquits herself well in the role of the possessed Qing, effectively portraying the role of a vengeful spirit confined to the body of a young girl.
But what's also intriguing about her performance is the suggestion of an entirely different possibility. What if Qing is mentally disturbed? Or faking it? The obvious vulnerability of a teenage girl thrown into a dangerous environment is no doubt partly responsible for this contradictory impression. At times, Qing looks more like a young woman completely out of her element than a ghost seeking revenge. The film resolves this issue definitively, but the possibility for another interpretation, at least in the early going, makes this a highly captivating film.
Director Chai Yee-Wei's decision to have Shun possess his sister rather than seek justice himself also gives the film a decidedly different valance than other supernatural revenge films of its ilk. While watching a young girl kill off people left and right may impede some of the vicarious fun that's more easily had in similar films like The Crow and Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, that difference does seem to be part of the point. Even when Qing confronts the vilest of the gangsters (whose horrifying predilections I won't even begin to describe here), the film doesn't let you revel in her (his?) gruesome acts of violence, despite being wholly justified.
Further, when Qing/Shun faces off against the gangsters, there's a level of danger in each scene that wouldn't otherwise exist if Shun had come back as himself. That aforementioned vulnerability makes the events of the film feel less rote than they would have in a traditional revenge drama. But perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Qing's possession is what occurs in the film's final act, a double-duty payoff (triple, if you're an inattentive viewer) that delighted me immensely. Stylish, daring, and ultimately satisfying, Blood Ties is an impressive debut from a fine young director. (Calvin McMillin 2009)