By Alex Yarde
New York Asian Film Festival 2015 entry Brotherhood of Blades takes Alex Yarde back to martial art classic films
I have the distinct pleasure of reviewing 2015 New York Asian Film Festival films of which the exemplary Brotherhood of Blades, nominated for Grand Jury Prize for Best Film at Fantastic Cinema Festival 2015, is the first. Brotherhood of Blades (Xiu Chun Dao 2014) is set in 1627, towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, when the young Chogzhen Emperor (Sherman Ye) decides to end the influence of all-powerful head of the Eastern Depot Secret Police Eunuch Wei Zhongxian (Chin Shi-chieh) and purge his supporters. The Emperor instructs a group of “Jiniwei”(embroidered-uniform guards) led by Shen Lian (Chang Chen) with his colleagues veteran Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan) and rookie Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li). These three lowly cash-strapped warriors from the Imperial Assassins are pawns caught in the midst of a larger game that none will escape unscathed.
The story of Brotherhood of Blades was written by director Lu Yang and Chen Shu. The film received funding only after the Chinese star Chang Chen had committed to the role of Shen Lian. The film received RMB30 million (US$5 million) from China Film and was shot in 67 days.
This Brotherhood of Blades is an above average costumed wuxia (martial hero) drama. It’s fueled by an excellent story taking a new spin on the wuxia staple of heroes fighting the Ming dynasty’s secret police like Dragon Inn plus top notch acting and relying on not just CGI effects and A-list Hong Kong talent but practical effects and wire work like the old school Shaw Brothers classics The Masked Avengers and The Kid With The Golden Arm. It’s comparable to Reign of Assassins. Assassins’ set piece fights were admittedly more memorable but Blades has a better story and keeps you interested in the various characters and plot threads build through the complex second and brilliant third acts.
The film takes the real life story of the fall of one of the most powerful and ruthlessly cunning leaders of the Ming Dynasty Eunuch Wei Zhongxian, who as Chief of the Secret Police and as holder of the Imperial Courts secrets was more powerful than the Emperor. Think of him as the J Edgar Hoover of Ancient China. This historical figure is the template for the “wicked, invincible eunuchs” in many of the martial arts movies from China. In reality Wei self immolated to avoid capture but this movie has an alternate theory that Wei bribed the secret police and faked his death.
Unlike many similar costumed dramas the complex characters all have webs of secrets and lies, the “bad” characters and “good” characters are well fleshed out and have understandable motivations. Our heroes, the three Jiniwei that were the backbone of Ming’s paramilitary Secret Police force become tarnished by the same corruption they are sworn to fight at the imperial court after Wei was ousted. They are each master swordsmen and sworn brothers but also lowly civil servants each in his own desperation is motivated by pressing monetary needs. One must pay the madame of a courtesan for her freedom from an imperial brothel. Another must bribe a superior for promotion. The third has to pay a blackmailer to conceal a damaging secret. The trio is caught firmly between Wei and his “Clique” of treasonous supporters and the teenage Emperor and his corrupt officials and flatterers, which leads to epic twists and turns as things play out brilliantly.
The leads are all uniformly terrific in their roles. Chang Chen was nominated for a Best Actor Award at the 2014 Golden Horse Film Festival for his brooding, understated portrayal and though he’s the draw for Chinese audiences, plays his everyman’s role of recluse who pines for a concubine whom he pays but never touches, hoping to earn her freedom very low key. He also shares a connection with her I won’t spoil for you. His older college, a stern climber with ambitions for Court played with solemn dignity by xuxia staple Wang Quanyuan and the likable rookie and former bandit Jin played heartbreakingly earnestly by Ethan Li. The supporting cast is as excellent as the leads and some steal the show, the standouts being scenery chewing Chin Shih-Chieh who was nominated as Best Supporting Actor at 2014 Golden Horse Film Festival as the awesomely evil Eunuch on the run Wei and Zhou Yiwei as the swaggering blackmailer, hired killer and former fellow student of the rookie Jin’s Kung Fu Master. Nie Yuan is the hardnosed plotting New Secret Police Chief with a few secrets of his own. Actress Cecilla Liu scenes with Chang were my highlights of the film. She delivers a convincing performance as the beautiful and broken courtesan.
The period costumes and production design were winners at the 2014 Golden Horse Film Festival and the action though not on par with Assassins or Dragon Inn, the Action Choreographer Sang Lin was nominated for a well deserved Golden Horse Award for stand out set pieces were the Trio, constantly out manned and out classed, used close quarters combat that was practical, gritty and realistic. Li Yun Zhu and Yiran Tu were also nominated for Best Film Editing at the 2014 Golden Horse which follows as xuxia films fights are so heavily edited. The limited budget I think did this film a service since effects are expensive and tend to pull you out of the scenes when they are too fanciful. Bottom line is Brotherhood of Blades is a bit of a throwback. At a time when the martial arts genre has become more about visual effects and movie stars Huading Award Winner 2015 for Best New Director Yang Lu has crafted a strong story with well fleshed out characters and practical effects as they did when I first discovered martial arts movies and it’s a winner!
Look for more reviews from the amazing roster of films from 2015 New York Asian Film Festival hosted by The Film Society at Lincoln Center. To purchase tickets and check the incredible roster of films being offered click here.
All art ~ China Film
Alex Yarde Is a Stay-At-Home Dad / Professional Geek. He reviews movies, TV shows, toys, games (video,board) and comic books. He writes and edits a blog “ALL THINGS GEEK” for Good Men Project and review films for Geek Girl Authority.