It’s not the language barrier, nor the theatrics and flamboyance, no, the biggest cross for martial arts cinema to bear is context. As a Westerner, many of the nuances of Eastern history allude me, unfortunately, its those very nuances that the historical martial arts film (Wuxia) concerns itself. Even as a fan, certain films pile this trifecta of confusion – typically a quagmire of feudal politics, social structures and dynasties – on a little thick. Unfortunately, Second Sight’s Brotherhood of Blades is a classic instance of this.
Lu Yang’s 2014 directorial debut concerns itself with the end of one such dynasty. In the 17th century (and the final days of the Ming Dynasty), a young incumbent Emperor decides to end the influence of an all-powerful land owner, Eunuch Wei (Chin Shi-chieh), by killing him and his supporters. A development which sees people on the totem-pole make power plays by corrupting and betraying those below them. In the middle of this are three, poor (in both senses of the word) imperial assassins who are given the charge of finding and killing Wei and his followers. Those assassins, specifically Shen Lian (Chang Chen), are the protagonists in this bedlam of moving parts. And there’s more too, Shen Lian wants to free a young courtesan, the oldest of the three, Jiang (Wang Qian-Yuan) is desperately seeking a promotion to provide for his family, and finally, the youngest, Jingzhong, is being callously blackmailed by someone from his past. Brotherhood of Blades is a convoluted film by any stick of measurement.
Defensive fans will argue that plot isn’t the reason for watching martial arts films – same goes for horror too. For some titles that is true, however, there is a way to process this all a little more neatly that the previously stacked synopsis implies. The way into Lu Yang’s film is through the sympathetic trio of assassins. Each one of them has an arc that is relatable, at their core they are attempting to overcome their violent restraints whilst also trying to move towards a positive future, one doomed by the events that are happening around them. That “trifecta of confusion” is but a setting. Another footpath to accessibility are the performances, and while some verge upon the brand of melodrama that is popular in its home continent or even ostentatious, it has Chang Cheh to shore it all up. His character, Shen Lian, is simultaneously hangdog and optimistic, a conflict that makes you want him and his friends to prevail. It’s an awful lot of film to place on his and Wang Qian-Yuan’s shoulders but they both carry it off with a purposeful magnetism.
With producers and studios like the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, the wider genre cultivated a reputation for the theatrical thanks to the over-reliance on artifice and sound stages. This is one of the reasons why King Hu’s films still stand up to this day, he used real sets and real locations and the difference it makes is measureless. Hou Hsiao-Hsien employed this with his critical darling the Assassin and so too has Lu Yang. With its luxurious halls and temples, the location scouting and production design in Brotherhood of Blades leave a big impression. Such extravagance makes the cinematographer’s job the easiest in the world. Costumes too, the ornate outfits of the assassins had full grasp of my attention every time the core trio appeared on the screen. Even then, other characters of higher stations address those very outfits as ragged; if one line of dialogue told a thousand stories, that it is.
Jackie Chan recently remarked on his dislike of American action films for their dependence on editing, that instead of allowing the action to speak for itself it was all communicated via hectic, rapid editing. Chinese cinema, on the other hand, allows a scene to breathe through long sweeping takes, other neighbouring countries opt for a similar tactic too. Lu Yang is a little different as he has incorporated a little of that American style into his film, especially in the earlier scenes as the otherwise brilliant choreography of the swordplay is broken up by editing. When twinned with the fast pace of the action, such editing can make matters disorientating. Thankfully, it doesn’t last long too as by around the halfway point, the film has relaxed into a much more traditional pace.
With that relaxed pace, action choreographer, Sang Lin (Red Cliff and Transporter Series) shoots for a more traditional style with numerous few against many scenes that equally display the strength of the central trio and the odds they are faced with. The earlier reference to the Shaw brothers was an entirely deliberate one as Lin’s work evokes the simplicity of the legendary studio’s work. The scene in Eunuch Wei’s house and a later scene where the ‘heroes’ are sealed inside another yard against insurmountable odds recall many a war scene from many Shaw Brothers classics. For this fan, no matter how many times I see this employed it will always be met with appreciation as it’s not often this style gets an outing, with directors feeling CG or wire-work serve their work better. As the well-worn adage states, less is most definitely more. Unfortunately, that simplicity is also home to the bane of contemporary Japanese cinema – that’s right, CG blood rears its ugly head.
Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades has its problems, whether that is a heavy rock track playing over the credits, CG blood, Americanised editing or the Byzantine plotting. However, be that as it may, we are not in the halcyon days of the martial arts film any longer. China is modernising itself and its industry, making such historical action films a rarer commodity than ever before thus it is a little bit more special when such films do appear. And it is perhaps for this exact reason that all the above criticisms don’t matter as much as they really should, this is a special occasion, after all, especially for it to see a UK release. Ultimately, Brotherhood of Blades is a wonderfully acted, gripping and involving martial arts classic that will have any all fans enraptured. At the end of the day, what else really matters?