Thursday 24 August 2017

The Current Cinema - Chinese film enthusiast John Snadden gets excited over BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES 2 (Lu Yang, 2017)

Finally some catch-up, after being dogged by a severe cold that has virtually brought the last 3 weeks to a standstill.

Chang Chen, Brotherhood of Blades 2
With the Northern hemisphere in its final weeks of summer, the Asian blockbusters have been arriving thick and fast from Hong Kong, China and South Korea. Two of these releases: Ann Hui's OUR TIME WILL COME and the Wuxia drama BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES 2 (Lu Yang, China, 2017) are among the best films I've seen so far this year. Both received short seasons at the multiplexes but were given slightly longer runs at Melbourne's Chinatown cinema.

I am a big fan of the original BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES (Yu Lang, China) from 2014. But the sequel BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES 2: THE INFERNAL BATTLEFIELD is even better, with tighter scripting, more focus on the main character, and with a bigger budget has allowed directer Lu Yang to show just how good a film-maker he has become. In all, this is a top-notch historical swordplay drama.

Yang Mi, Brotherhood of Blades 2
BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES 2 is set during the final years of the Ming Dynasty, where government and rule-of-law are crumbling under the weight of corrupt leaders and a population on the verge of open revolt.

We first see Shen Lian (Chang Chen) as a soldier, literally, rising from the dead as he becomes a survivor of the bloody battle of Saruh where thousands of Ming soldiers were slaughtered by Manchu rebels.
Fast forward 8 years, and Shen is now a Captain in the Jin Yi Wei, the Emperor's secret police. He is investigating the murders of a family of traders, which he suspects are linked to a recent attempt on the Emperor's life. His boss, Eunuch Wei (Chin Shi Chieh) is also showing an undue interest in the case. Adding to Shen's workload is a charge of sedition involving a young artist, and his uncovering of a rebel cell led by a person from Shen's recent past.

Chin Shi Chieh (r), Brotherhood of Blades 2
The film belongs to Taiwanese actor Chang Chen who hardly cracks a smile in the movie and isn't averse to using his position to advance his interests. But he's a talented police officer who gets results and isn't afraid of clashing with corrupt superiors and weakling politicians. Chinese audiences have embraced this screen anti-hero and it's quite possible BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES could become a profitable movie franchise.  

Director Lu Yang along with the original writer Chen Shu have created a prequel which covers a broader canvas and lets director Lu produce some tremendous set-pieces, one being the robbing and burning of the Royal Archive, with its clever use of shadowy light and pin-point editing it reminded me of Hong Kong film-maker Tsui Hark - at his best!

Visually the film is a treat, from the dimly-lit lane ways of Beijing to the verdant beauty of Alpine trails and mountain lakes. A particular scene set at night in a bamboo forest is a not-so-subtle reference to similar passages in films from Shaw Brothers and more recently, HERO and CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON.

My only negative criticism of this pic is the supposed romance between Shen and the artist Bei Zhai (Yang Mi), which turns out to exist in an emotional dead zone with both actors looking like they want to be anywhere else but on set together. Whether by accident or design, the screen definitely heats up when Shen and the rebel Ding (Xin Zhifei) are forced to work as a team. There's a passion and energy here that could have been better directed in creating some legitimate screen appeal.

One of the movie's best sequences has Shen and a group of followers escaping to the safety of a nearby province. They reach the border at a mountain pass, with the creepiest and creakiest rope bridge as their only pathway to freedom. With Eunuch Wei and his troops in close pursuit, life and death decisions are being made by Shen and his colleagues. Bloodshed is imminent as the soldiers arrive to face warriors who are, physically and mentally, at the end of their tethers - but ready to fight one last brutal pitched battle.

For any-one who has seen the original pic, make sure you sit through the end credits as a short "teaser" scene is included which offers up a potential story-line for a BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES 3.

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