J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Brotherhood of Blades: the Imperial Assassins Do What They Do

Would you feel confident throwing your conspiratorial lot in with something called “the Eunuch Clique?” Maybe not now, but the late Ming Dynasty were far different times. Senior Eunuch Wei Zhongxian was thought to control seventy percent of court officials, the so-called Clique. The new emperor is determined root out the eunuch’s influence, but that will be easier said than done for the three Jinyiwei imperial assassins in Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades (trailer here), which Well Go USA releases today on DVD and BluRay.

The trio of Jinyiwei are so scruffy, their new commander Zhao Jingzhong is confident they have not been corrupted. It also means they could use a windfall. Shen Lian yearns to buy the freedom of Zhou Miaotong, a courtesan he has long visited, but it is unlikely to happen on his Imperial salary. The older and gaunter Lu Jianxing covets a promotion, but that will require bribes beyond his means. Meanwhile, the consumptive rookie, Jin Yichuan makes regular blackmail payments to an older associate from his criminal past.

Since they all need money, Shen Lian makes an executive decision to strike a deal with Wei. In exchange for a considerable sum of gold Taels, the Jinyiwei assassin lets Wei escape, delivering the charred body of a servant in his place. The three are hailed as heroes, but Wei’s followers are already conspiring to eliminate the only witnesses who know the powerful Eunuch is still alive. Unbeknownst to them, Zhao is part of the cabal. It turns out he is Wei’s secret foster-son. As the leader of the Eastern Depot, Zhao will give the three assassins assignments specifically intended to silence them permanently. When they manage to live anyway, things really start getting complicated.

In a way, Brotherhood is like a gangster movie decked out as a wuxia epic. Everyone is on the take to some extent. The question is how morally compromised are they? Like a good Triad or Yakuza film, it a heavy with themes of loyalty and betrayal, with personal allegiances frequently trumping concern for corps, dynasty, and nation. Of course there is also plenty of hack-and-slash action, featuring more crimson blood splatters than typical of the genre.

Taiwanese superstar Chang Chen, whose credits go back to Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day is perfectly suited for the tightly wounded Shen Lian. He broods hard and when he loses his cool, it is serious business. Frankly, it is one of his best performances in years. Likewise, Wang Qianyuan is appropriately world weary and a bit vinegary as old Lu Jianxing. However, Ethan Li largely fades into the background as the young, sickly Jin Yichuan.

Brotherhood is fully loaded with colorful supporting turns, but it strangely shortchanges Dani Zhou’s screen time, even though she seems quite promising as Wei’s butt-kicking daughter, Wei Ting. On the other hand, Cecilia Liu totally looks the part and delivers the aching tragedy in spades as the more-substantial-than-you-expect courtesan.

It is hard to believe Brotherhood’s robust action and intrigue comes from the same director who helmed My Spectacular Theater, a sensitive drama about empathy and accommodation, but here it is—and it is jolly nice to have it. Recommended for fans who like their wuxia on the bloody, morally ambiguous side, Brotherhood of Blades is now available on DVD, BluRay, and digital platforms, from Well Go USA.

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