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

China (2017) Dir. Lu Yang

It seems Alan Mak and Andrew Lau have set a precedent when it comes to sequels, since having the follow-up to a successful film be a prequel in Chinese/Hong Kong cinema is now a recurring practice. Case in point – Lu Yang’s follow-up to 2014’s Brotherhood Of Blades is set before the event of its parent film.

Opening in 1619, we are reunited with Shen Lian (Chang Chen), the hero from the first film, at this point a regular soldier on the battlefield, saving General Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi) from execution. Fast forward eight years and Shen is now Captain of the guards in Southern Beijing, serving under Lu. When asked by court eunuch Wei Zhongxian (Shih-Chieh King) to eliminate of a rebel painter named Bei Zhai, whose works allegedly mock the emperor, Lu sends Lieutenant Ling, Wei’s nephew to fulfil the task.

Curious about Bei Zhai’s identity Cheng tags along; discovering Bei is a mystery woman he met before (Yang Mi), Cheng prevents the killing and instead takes Ling’s life. With Bei being the only witness to the crime and Lu using his position to cover it up, Cheng receives a blackmail note from the rebels who are protecting Bei. In doing their bidding, Cheng uncovers a sinuous plot against the emperor involving numerous factions.

The first film was an ambitious wuxia flick by novice director Lu Yang that successfully defied all expectations of it modest budget and under the radar status to become one of the best kept secrets of the genre. A sequel didn’t seem implausible yet felt like a possibility so the arrival of this film is not really a surprise in that respect – it certainly gives Yang the chance to show he is not a one trick pony.

And that is one of the very tiny problems to be found in BOB II, in that it resembles its predecessor on a number of fronts, predominantly in the aesthetic and in containing a convoluted plot that tends to run away with itself. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself is it means lightning can strike twice for Lang, and essentially establishes the continuity of the two stories, given the few years separation between them.

Because it doesn’t directly reference the events of the first film, in other words this isn’t told via flashback, one could easily watch this before watching the other one if they so desire, but like the Star Wars prequels it’s interesting to see how we got to the point of the story we are already familiar with.

However we since we know Cheng is to return for a few years later, the one thing that is missing is the drama of whether he survives the battles he is fights, especially when vastly outnumbered the climax and presumably left for dead. Yang does his best to tease us otherwise but with the cat already out of the bag so to speak, it is more a question of how he survives rather than if.

Getting us to this point is, as alluded to earlier, another labyrinthine story of betrayal, deceit, intrigue, and political subterfuge with threads spreading far and wide. That the mysterious Bei Zhai is a woman is something that works to her advantage as everyone believes they are looking for a man. We can’t accuse this film of being completely sexist though as Bei is protected by lethal swordswoman Ding Baiying (Xin Zhilei).

It might not have been an accident that Bei and Cheng met but the killing of Ling certainly wasn’t the plan, especially as Cheng didn’t know Ling was Wei’s nephew. But this high profile fatality means an investigation is in order and Captain Pei Lun (Lei Jiayin) is given the case – bad news for Cheng as Pei hates Cheng for the death of his friend Yin Cheng which took place at the start of the film.

From here, secrets are exposed either by accident or by design, and the balance of power shifts on a regular basis as it is revealed that some of the main manipulators are covering their bases by ingratiating themselves with more than one camp. The only one to remain on the right side morally is Cheng, but even then, his loyalty and sense of righteousness is frequently tested with each passing development.

Whilst the spiralling nature of the story dominates, as it should, this is at the expense of the action sequences. There are a few, from the spectacular to the all too brief; they are well choreographed but hampered by the over use of wires for when someone is hit then propelled 20 feet through the air. The multi-person finale fails to exploit this premise, leaving most of the carnage out, removing the drama from what should have been an emotional climax.   

The success of the first film clearly afforded Lang a much higher budget for this one and it shows in the pristine images that do the lovingly detailed sets and majestic costumes justice. Night time scenes are suffused with an enigmatic blue whilst use of aerial and panoramic shots to convey the expanse of the countryside are a feast for the eyes.

None of this would mean anything without a committed cast to augment this experience and Chang Chen once again leads the way, showing us what made Cheng become the man we met in the first film. Yang Mi carries herself with an ethereal quality as the mysterious Bei Zhai, a woman torn between love and vengeance, a calming presence among the testosterone of Chen and Lei Jiayin as the unctuous Pei.

Finding faults with Brotherhood Of Blades II feels a bit churlish as it is every bit the spectacular historical wuxia epic its predecessor, which also had its cavils. The story is involved and often confusing but never dull, although those who crave more swordplay in their wuxia might not feel totally satiated. Still a great genre flick though!