Brotherhood Of Blades(2014)
- RatedPG13 /GenreMartial Arts
‘Brotherhood of Blades’, written and directed by Beijing Film Academy graduate Lu Yang, is an ambitious wuxia (Chinese swordfighting) epic juggling many narrative threads and characters.
It is a huge departure from his first two feature films, ‘My Spectacular Theatre’ and ‘A Motor Home Adventure’, both indie drama films that are largely unseen outside of the film festival circuit.
It would not be farfetched to say that ‘Brotherhood of Blades’ is the most exciting wuxia film entry since the John Woo-produced ‘Reign of Assassins’ (2010).
If Lee Ang’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000) is a romantic homage to the poetic beauty of wuxia, ‘Brotherhood of Blades’ is a revisionist genre reboot to show the gritty and dark side of the world of swordsmen and pugilists.
Set in the 17th century during the late Ming Dynasty in China, when there were corruption and power struggles among the different political factions, this film is a nod to the early works of King Hu and longtime fans of the wuxia genre with all its staples of political intrigue and powerful evil eunuchs.
As young emperor Chongzhen ascends the throne, he orders the expulsion of chief eunuch Wei Zhongxian (played by Taiwanese veteran actor Chin Shih-chieh with maniacal glee), the former powerful ringleader of the Eastern Eunuch Faction.
Three highly skilled fighters in the jinyiwei – the Emperor’s secret police aka assassination squad – are tasked to deliver Wei’s head.
The three are like blood brothers, with unwavering loyalty to each other, but each carries his own desires and baggage, with money being the common solution to their problems.
Eldest brother Lu Jianxin, played by Wang Qianyuan, who previously starred in the acclaimed drama ‘The Piano Factory’ (2010), is the most morally upright of the three, but to appease his mother’s wishes, he has been trying to bribe his way to a higher ranking position.
Second brother Shen Lian (Chang Chen, who jumpstarted his career with ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’), is the most ruthless and efficient killer of the trio, showing his dexterity and archery skills in an astonishing opening sequence that happened in one smooth uninterrupted take.
His weakness? His unrequited love for the courtesan Zhou Miaotong (played by Liu Sisi), whose freedom he is saving up to buy.
Finally, there is the youngest brother Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li), whose dark past as a criminal is catching up with him, being blackmailed by a former rogue gang member.
The three brothers are subordinated to Zhao Jingzhong (played by Nie Yuan), the new leader of the Eastern Eunuch Faction. The plot thickens when Zhao’s relationship with Wei is revealed.
In such corrupted times, the loyalty and integrity of the three brothers are being tried and tested.
Unlike the old tales of wuxia novels and movies where chivalry abounds and the righteous triumph, here is a world where good men die, and the heroes are much more complex and ambiguous.
VIOLENT FIGHT SCENES
The visual treatment and production value of this movie is top-notch, as if film noir has taken a shift to ancient China.
Costumes and gadgets are meticulously designed, especially the uniform of the jinyiwei and the different weaponry used by each of the brothers.
Most impressive are the fighting choreography, notably the opening sequence, and two major courtyard fight scenes where the three brothers have close-quarter bloody combats.
A little distracting though are the excessive squirts of blood, which might be another nod to older martial arts films, but this updated CGI version takes away the realism momentarily.
SHOWPIECE FOR CHANG CHEN
Even though the characters in the brotherhood and their backstories are given ample screen time, there is no doubt that the weight of the film is being carried by its biggest star, Chang Chen.
Unlike his previous action outing in Wong Kar Wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’ where severe edits left just three scenes featuring him, ‘Brotherhood Of Blades’ shows that Chang has matured and is capable as a serious actor and bonafide action movie leading man.
He has already scored his third nomination for Best Actor in the upcoming Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars of Chinese cinema.
Co-star Chin is also nominated as Best Supporting Actor, chewing up all the scenes in which he appears as the diabolical and manipulative villain.
The film opened in China in August as well as the Busan Film Festival in South Korea to rave reviews, and it is definitely worth catching all the action here on the big screen.
‘Brotherhood of Blades’ opens in cinemas 16 October 2014