Brotherhood of Blades is one of the best Chinese martial-arts films to have graced our cinema screens for quite some time. The movie boasts a volatile mix of quasi 17th century Chinese history, political paranoia and deadly palace conspiracies. With an individual emphasis on ornate film sets, power-crazed eunuchs, sadistic secret police and a trio of Ming Dynasty elite killers, there’s much here reminiscent of the best of the Shaw Brothers’ swordplay films.
The movie’s main focus is on the Jinyiwei, a select team of highly trained and secretive government police, who are at times employed as assassins.Three officers in this unit are Shen Lian (Chang Chen), the senior of the group, and Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan), a loyal but ambitious agent and Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li), the newest and youngest arrival to the team. They are given orders to find and kill Eunuch Wei (Chin Shi Chieh), a once powerful and ruthless figure who is now considered a threat to the new Emperor. Wei offers Shen and his colleagues a fortune in gold to let him live.
With their grisly work done, the assassins return to Beijing where they are feted by their boss, the treacherous Zhao, head of the secret police. With money and now influence, Shen and his officers have a chance to make something of their lives. No matter how physically skilled they might be in the lethal arts, it’s the personal frailties of love, deceit and hubris which will surely test this close-knit triad of friends in the coming days.
This is only director Lu Yang’s (My Spectacular Theatre) third film and his first martial-arts movie. But he knows the genre territory and delivers the cinematic goods with a precision and discipline of a King Hu or Lau Kar-Leung. As a co-writer he adds some narrative twists and turns that will provide genuine surprises to even the most long standing martial-arts movie buff. With writer Chen Shu they have created a first-rate screenplay which keeps the audience on edge. This is achieved without over-plotting or over-use of CGI, but with solid character-based scripting. After seeing the Jinyiwei agents’ unheroic or human side, we are then confronted by a series of murderous attacks on each of the officers.
As for the martial-arts content, I found the fight choreography to be enjoyable but not particularly inspired. What did impress me was the brutal looking weaponry wielded by many of the combatants. The use of heavy link chains to constrict and then crush a swordsman was definitely original and disturbing. And the handheld crossbows which fired multiple arrows at a machine-gun rate were highly watchable, but one suspects that some historical license may have been taken here.
Brotherhood of Blades works so well on so many levels it’s no surprise that the acting is also of a high standard. When we first see Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) he’s depicted as a cruel government functionary. He possesses a brooding self-loathing which we find has much to do with his love for Miaotong (Cecilia Liu), a beautiful Royal courtesan for whom Shen yearns from a distance. I’ve never taken a lot of notice of this Taiwanese actor but in this pic he emotes a world of pain with a stoicism that, at times, will be deeply felt by the viewer. In total contrast is Chin Shi Chieh’s (Reign of Assassins) performance as Eunuch Wei, a truly monstrous character who physically and mentally disintegrates before our eyes, and soon completes a ghastly portrait of a long life horribly lived.
As the winter sun sets over Beijing and the first snowfall of the night carpets the ground, the three Jinyiwei warriors must flee the city for the safe haven of Nanjing — or face a nightmare of bloodshed and violence. With this protracted passage of film, director Lu has designed a tremendously effective and affecting sequence with a near perfect balance of raw emotion and violent circumstance.
As the drama of the above fades to black and we expect to see the final credits — for some unknown reason we are then presented with an obviously tacked-on ending which looks and feels just so wrong. From what had been such a sure-footed movie experience this ridiculous finale was a major stumble. But don’t let this film-making lapse put you off seeing such an entertaining and satisfying movie.