Brotherhood Of Blades (Xiu chun dao)

China (2014) Dir. Lu Yang

It might surprise you to learn that despite the enticing title throwing up suggestions of swords and bloodshed, this film is actually about gardeners – the titular blades being those made of grass. You’re not buying it are you? Of course this is wu xia film where blades used as weapons and blood do in fact go hand in hand.

A disembodied narrator informs us that the setting is 1620’s China, where the newly seated emperor, teenage megalomaniac Chongzhen (Ye Xiang Ming), has decided that the previous regime of eunuch Wei Zhongxian (Chin Shi-chieh) needs to be wiped out along with his supporters the Eunuch Clique.

Three lowly Imperial Assassins – Shen Lian (Chang Chen), Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan) and Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li) – are chosen by the head of the Secret Police Zhao Jingzhong (Nie Yuan) to execute Wei but a desperate decision by Shen Lian not only sets the downfall of the trio in motion but exposes a web of deceit and betrayal within the Imperial palace.

Newcomer Lu Yang makes a massive leap from his low budget 2010 debut My Spectacular Theatre to this lavish wu xia action drama that has bafflingly taken three long years to reach the UK. Yang’s confidence in helming such a huge project so early in his career is all on the screen, clearly having studied the genre from the Shaw Brothers, through Tsui Hark to the modern day masters.

A well-balanced mix of drama, intrigue, character study and of course action, the story and script by Yang and co-writer Chen Shu takes its time to unfold and is equally measured in how it reaches its conclusion too. I have to admit that once it finished, I went back and re-watched the opening twenty minutes to make sure I got all the points in order, exposing the only weakness in the otherwise tightly constructed writing.

Though not blood brothers, Jianxing, Shen and Yichuan trained together under the same master thus are sworn brothers. The film’s opening demonstrates the well-oiled machine they have become whilst showing off their individual strengths. But they all have individual worries too and need big money to deal with them, which on their low salaries is impossible.

As the senior member Jianxing is looking for a promotion to appease his mother but is refused by his captain Zhang Ying (Qiao Lei), demanding more money to grease the right palms. Shen wants to buy the freedom of courtesan Zhou Miao Tong (Cecilia Liu) while Yichaun is being blackmailed by a former fellow trainee Ding Xiu (Zhou Yi Wei) over the secret behind Yichaun’s true status.

Keen to cover his dastardly tracks, Jingzhong orchestrates a plan to ensure the trio are killed while arresting the last Eunuch Clique member but he doesn’t bargain on just how skilled this threesome is. So, Jingzhong decides to manipulate the situation along with the greed and ego of those around him to meet his objectives.

What makes the story so appealing is how it can be applied to any number of situations and settings, past or present, and still be a gripping tale of corruption and intrigue. It could be relocated to Italy with Mafia, modern day Hong Kong with the Triads, Japan and the Yakuza, the wild west, a futuristic authoritarian world, modern day political and financial worlds or World War II, and they would each be different enough to create interest in their interpretations.

The classic Chinese wu xia period setting for this telling of it feels like a natural fit whilst the shades of grey that defines the characters is very much a product of the modern mindset, adding extra spice to the proceedings. We forget quite quickly that the mail trio are salaried killers, largely because they are willing to cut a few corners and bend a few rules to avoid unnecessary bloodshed unless in self-defence.   

Ding Xiu is one character we could have learned a lot more about, but instead he wanders in an out of the story, apparently following Yichaun about to remind him that his payments are due. Ding later becomes involved in a bizarre deus ex machina style twist that flips everything on its head in the final act, but stands true to the central theme of paying heed to the consequences of your actions.

Tipping the hat to the old school use of wires and CGI is limited in favour of good old fashioned choreographed combat and swordplay in both the group setting or individually. Disappointingly, one fight we don’t get to see is Jianxing against Wei’s female bodyguard Wei Ting (Dan Zhu) which is teased, then cuts away to another fight before returning to find Ting all but finished. I guess Lu Yang isn’t a fan of male-on-female combat.

Similarly scenes involving horses being harmed during the final battle also occur off camera which suggests Yang really is a sensitive soul or maybe someone in China has finally come round to the idea of animal violence isn’t fun to watch. This is less a complaint more an observation along with how the women are not so objectified and whose emotions are portrayed as real

Juggling both action and acting the cast are superb in their roles, each bringing something unique to their fighting sides and their dramatic sides as the script demands. Cinematography is sumptuous, especially in the closing scenes of the expansive Chinese countryside, while the period set design are of the usual high standard for such a production.

Putting aside the slightly bloated and convoluted laying the groundwork of the opening half an hour and the seemingly stuck on ending, everything in between found in Brotherhood Of Blades shows Lu Yang could be a major force in Chinese cinema. A throwback to the old school wu xia with modern presentation and compelling dramatic storytelling, this is a film fans of the genre have been waiting for.

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