Monday, July 26, 2021

Brotherhood of Blades x2

Back a couple months ago, I wondered if Lu Yang's Brotherhood of Blades movies were so big and great that he got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with A Writer's Odyssey, because it sure felt like the sort of thing where producers were almost afraid to say "no" to whatever he asked for, and it turned out to be a relatively easy thing to find out, since Well Go has the rights for both and put discs out. I went with the import on the second, though, because why not encourage Panorama and other Hong Kong distributors to go the 4K route whenever possible? It's a nice-looking disc, although it's kind of funny: This is one of those movies with a lot of black costumes with detailed embossing that even a good Blu-ray can mess up, so it benefits from the format, but it also highlights just that scheme can feel simultaneously slick and boring.

I don't know how well these two did at the box office, beyond the first apparently being enough of a hit to get the second a budget upgrade, but you can sort of see why some folks might see Lu Yang as the next big thing or ready to break out, both domestically and internationally - as much as I've seen Shaw Brothers-style period action given more contemporary coats of paint over the past couple of decades, Lu and co-writer Chen Shu bring in some international genre sensibilities without making the movies seem less Chinese.

One thing that's interesting is that in doing this, he seems to be pushing what the censors will allow a bit; Shen's a far more corrupt hero than these movies often present, even when taking place in the past when you can at least use the excuse that the Ming Dynasty was corrupt. It's interesting, though, that the second movie explicitly references free speech and censorship as something tyrants do. Not that that sort of hypocrisy is unusual, but it's interesting that it's a theme that Lu would return to in Odyssey, that artists can be literally dangerous to authorities.

Interesting enough to keep an eye on, at least.

Xiu chun dao (Brotherhood of Blades)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-Ray)

A Shaw Brothers-style story told in thoroughly modern fashion, Brotherhood of Blades isn't the most intricate thriller of the most astounding kung fu, but it's an entertaining middle ground for those who enjoy the genre a bit of martial-arts action but can't get into the rhythms or cultural specifics of those movies. Filmmaker Lu Yang delivers some solid wuxia action, even if one is not inclined to learn terms like "wuxia".

As it opens in 1627, Emperor Chongzhen (Ye Xiangming) has recently ascended to the throne, and his first action is to send the Imperial Assassins after Wei Zhongxian (King Shih-Chieh), whose "Eunuch's Clique" had effective control of the court under Chongzhen's predecessor. After the team of Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan), Shen Lian (Chang Chen), and Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li Dong-Xue) successfully eliminates one crony, they are sent after Wei himself, in part because, as secret police leader Han Kuang (Zhao Lixin) points out, they are too low in status to have been a target for corruption. But, of course, everyone in the capital has an agenda that the rich and influential Wei and those who oppose him can influence, including the assassins - Lu is angling for a promotion, Shen would like to buy the freedom of courtesan Zhou Miaotong (Cecilia Liu Shishi), and Jin is being blackmailed by Ding Xiu (Zhou Yiwei) about his criminal past - while all the scheming going on above them is certain to render them loose ends to be eliminated.

The script by Lu and co-writer Chen Shu is maybe not entirely efficient - looked at as a whole, it certainly has a fair amount of elements that the movie doesn't exactly need - but it's impressively well-balanced. The main trio, by and large, are all able to have their own things going on without one completely taking center stage at the expense of the others, the conspiracy has enough going on to be interesting without pushing the heroes off to the side, and the spots where things circle back around to link up don't feel cheap. As director, he keeps all of that moving at a comfortable clip and makes the climax satisfying, although it could maybe do without the one last action sequence, a classic "let's take the last fight away from the rest of the movie's context" deal.

That said, it's a pretty good fight, and by and large action director Sang Lin does nice work as he works with Lu to stage the action. With the assassins established early on as an elite force and not much room in the story for other characters beyond Wei's bodyguard (Zhu Dan) to be especially great at martial arts, they mostly go for "throw a small army at these three guys" and it by and large works; everyone seems to be able to handle a sword well enough to keep it moving and it keeps dogpiling to a minimum. Lu uses hails of arrows the way a more modern movie might use automatic weapons fire, but still has fun giving characters different weapons and seeing how they match up against each other.

He and his cast also hit on the right sort of gritty amorality to make the film feel hit differently from a Hong Kong period action movie (often about legends) or the typical Mainland one (where the characters often map to specific modern types and approved attitudes). Chang Chen, in particular, feels comfortable letting the audience see Shen Lian as a piece of work, seemingly more comfortable as an assassin than the soldier or cop he and the crew are also expected to be, with some cruelty in his introduction and later aloofness. Li Dong-Xue and Wang Qianyuan have a little of that too, but Jin gets to play romantic while Lu is frustrated by the everyday corruption necessary to get ahead. King Shih-Chieh is clearly having a ball as Wei, a villain with nothing left to lose as the walls close in, while Zhao Lixin, Nie Yuan, Zhou Yiwei, and others create an enjoyable snake pit.

There's a dirty cops versus grandly corrupt officials vibe to it, and that turns out to be a good way into this material, probably even more so if the typical Chinese palace/temple intrigue leaves one cold or confused. It may not have the best twists or the best swordplay, but it does everything it attempts wee enough to make for an entertaining couple hours.

Also at eFilmCritic

Xiu chun dao II: xiu luo zhan chang (Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 4K Blu-Ray)

What's a filmmaker to do when a movie leaves the bulk of its characters dead at the end but performs well enough that the studio wants a sequel? They can try surrounding any survivors with new characters and see how that works, or do a prequel, or what's been increasingly popular in Hong Kong lately and just say the movie with a number after it is the same filmmakers and actors getting together to do the same sort of movie again, all valid ways of giving the audience more of that thing they enjoyed. For his follow-up to Brotherhood of Blades, filmmaker Lu Yang seems to be doing all three, and it makes for a more muddled, less invigorating take on the genre than its predecessor, even if there's still some fun to be had.

It opens in 1619 as Han soldier Shen Lian (Chang Chen) crawls out from under the corpses of those slain at one of the many battles at Sarhu, soon rescuing some of his comrades about to be executed by the Manchus. One of them, Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi) looks at the carnage and despairs of finding another way to live. Eight years later, Lu is a commander of the palace guards and Shen a captain, the sort that's not quite corrupt enough to get ahead in the same way as Lieutenant Ling Yunkai (Jiang Wu), a nephew of the powerful eunuch lord Wei Zhongxian (King Shih-Chieh). Given a bonus that doesn't sit well, he spends it on some work being sold by a local monk on behalf of talented artist Bei Zhai, only to be sent to arrest the artist (now considered seditious) with Ling. When he's shocked to see that the only person at Bei's house is the girl (Yang Mi) who offered him an umbrella to keep the painting dry, he causes the whole thing to go sideways, and soon he is being partnered with shrewd detective Pei Lun (Lei Jiayin) to investigate the case on the one hand and blackmailed by swordswoman Master Ding (Xin Zhilei) to burn the Guards' archives. Is he a pawn in the plans of Wei, whose influence will likely wane with a new Emperor, or the prince (Yuan Wen-Kang) who nevertheless fears Wei's power?

One might be forgiven for not being sure that this is the same Shen Lian, given that this movie would seem to rewrite his backstory and features none of the other characters with whom he formed a tight-knit unit in the other film, and it sometimes seems that Chang Chen isn't quite sure what to do with what Lu and returning co-writer Chen Shu have given him. He gives Shen the same sort of weighted-down body language as before but never really figures out how to make it work with the broad streak of idealism that the story necessitates. He's a lot more interesting playing off Lei Jiayin than Yang Mi; Lei plays Pei Lun as a smart detective who enjoys seeing people squirm, while Yang Mi seldom gets to let the same sort of strong idealism guide her performance, mostly playing the vertex of a love triangle where she's never actually seen with her original partner.

The plot's a messier situation Shen faced in the first movie, although never quite so immediate, with so much happening above his pay grade while he's basically forced to be a better survivor than the schemers realize. Shen's closer to an honest cop in a dirty department than a dirty cop with some scruples here, and even with all the double-crosses and massive conspiracies going on (including a moment or two where the filmmakers do a surprisingly good job of making the trope of a character remembering something he saw on TV earlier in the film work in Eighteenth Century China), they still run out of twists fairly early, with the good guys on the run for long enough to draw things out until the big fight.

And if that finale with a rope bridge rickety enough that the horses want no part of it and a bunch of people with swords doesn't exactly go full Temple of Doom, it is nevertheless a bloody good time. The budget seems to be a bit higher this time around (the title cards certainly show more companies contributing to it!), and while some goes to things that are only superficially more impressive - the leather costumes manage to get blacker and slicker - Lu and action director Sang Lin often seem to have a little more room to work this time around. There are more close-in confrontations that let Chang Chen and Xin Zhilei, among others, confront each other without a lot of cutting or getting lost in hordes - although when there is a horde, the filmmakers do a nice job of highlighting the sensation of sort of force about to crush you, even if you're as good at fighting as Shen.

Brotherhood of Blades 2 has the same basic formula as the first, half sword wuxia and half cops & corruption, but where that film seemed to have the right half of each, this one brings a little more of the genres' weaknesses along. It's still an interesting mix of influences, especially if you decide not to worry about how it fits with its predecessor.

Also at eFilmCritic

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