Monday, January 26, 2015

Brotherhood of Blades (2015)

Director: Lu Yang
Notable Cast: Chang Chen, Chin Shih-chieh, Ye Qing, Wang Qianyuan, Li Dongxue, Nie Yuan, Zhao Lixin, Qiao Lei, Yang Yi, Gu Dian, Ye Xiangming, Yang Xiaobo

The wuxia genre has seen its fair share of evolutionary changes and most recently it has taken to being a rather artistic and epic affair thanks to filmmakers like Zhang Yimou. There have been a few films that harken back towards the more classic (and pulpy) wuxia style like 14 Blades, but it’s usually either one or the other. Rarely does one find a film that blends a slick modern visual style of modern Hong Kong and the classic old school foundations for the genre. Not only does Brotherhood of Blades do that, but it also efficiently blends the two in such a way as to be a massively entertaining action packed ride and a heartfelt and dramatic tale.

As the governing body of the Chinese government desperately looks to weed out corruption, they task three of their best Imperial Assassins (Chang Chen, Chin Shih-chieh, Ye Qing) to find and eliminate the head of the movement. Unknown to them, the assassins’ task is steeped in political upheaval and their mission will leave them on the wrong end of the blade.

Brothers in arms.
To throw a bit of context to this review, it was completely unexpected that this film would be such a phenomenal piece of work. Sure, it was nominated for a handful of Golden Horse awards (the Hong Kong version of the Oscars) in a slew of categories like best actor, supporting actor, action choreography and make-up and costume design, but usually that means the film is more artsy and less dynamic. Brotherhood of Blades is DYNAMIC. All caps. It works on so many levels that I may have watched it three times in one day. In a row. On repeat.

The film, first and foremost, solidifies itself as a classic style wuxia. The story is based on loyalty, betrayal, love, and honor as we follow the rather edgy lives of three ‘brothers’ in the Imperial Assassins. We see them betrayed by the very officials that they placed their faith and loyalty in and then they have to fight their way out. Like the classic Shaw Brothers wuxia of 70s and 80s, the film moves at an efficient and quick pace, intertwining the character beats of our three heroes with bombastic action set pieces. Sleek visuals from director Lu Yang punctuate the fight work, where there are big multi-tiered fights among rain, fire, and snow as if the film didn’t think it was quite dynamic enough, and the impact of the fights actually move both plot and character arcs forward – a task that is often overlooked in modern action cinema far too often.

No chains can hold him!
Even outside of the engaging entertainment value of the film as an action flick, there is quite the heart to Brotherhood of Blades. The combined acting efforts of the three leading men, along with a rather large and yet utterly memorable and valuable secondary cast, deepens the overall effectiveness of the standard betrayal/loyalty martial arts themes. Layers of character personalities are peeled away in quick effectual dialogue (learning of the dreams, problems, and loves of these three men is almost as entertaining as the slick modern sword fighting) and by the time shit truly hits the fan in the third act the film had me hooked and emotional.

Carry on.
That is the brilliance of Brotherhood of Blades. On one side, the film contains plenty of modern visuals and a slightly askew narrative that uses non-linear leaps for emotional punch. On the other, this film could have easily starred Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Fu Sheng and been one of the biggest grossing wuxia films for the Shaw Brothers in 1978 with its classic themes and characters. Yet, the true highlight of the film is just how unbelievably smooth the blending of both of those sides are. The film is beautiful and lush in its look and design. The fights are ambitious and exciting. The story is classic and still refreshing in its character build. Brotherhood of Blades is one of the best martial arts films in the last 30 years. Chang Cheh would be proud.
Seriously though, I’m adding a couple of pre-order links below this. Buy it. It drops on February 10th from the iconic Well Go USA.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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