Movie review: Brotherhood Of Blades cuts to the chase

Palace assassins (from left) Yichuan (Li Dongxue), Shen Lian (Chang Chen) and Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan) are motivated by money and status. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
Palace assassins (from left) Yichuan (Li Dongxue), Shen Lian (Chang Chen) and Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan) are motivated by money and status. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Wuxia movie scores high on good old-fashioned swordplay while keeping cheesy romance to a minimum

Review Period action

BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES

106 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****

The story: Immediately after a new emperor takes over the Ming dynasty court, he orders the downfall of eunuch Wei and his supporters, a group who wielded much power under the previous ruler. Three palace assassins - sworn brothers Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan), Shen Lian (Chang Chen) and Yichuan (Li Dongxue) - are tasked to kill them. Wei attempts to buy his way out of death and, for the poorly paid assassins, it is an offer that is almost too tempting to pass on.

Wuxia movie heroes are typically driven by codes of honour and justice, which can make them a little one-dimensional.

The protagonists here, however, are anti-heroes, a trio of underground Ming dynasty palace assassins driven by a thirst for money and status.

No one, not even Taiwanese heart-throb Chang Chen, is obviously good or bad, which makes the characters so much more believable and the story perpetually suspenseful as it keeps you guessing their fates right to the end.

Jianxing needs the cash to bribe a corrupt official in order to attain his deserved promotion. Shen Lian hopes to buy his love from a brothel.

Yichuan needs it to pay off a blackmailer who keeps threatening to expose his former existence as a thief.

The three assassins remain sympathetic throughout because, despite their personal greed, they are absolutely loyal to one another, ready to stand together as sworn brothers no matter what happens.

Drama aside, the wuxia action sequences - choreographed by Lin Sang (Red Cliff, 2009) - are truly satisfying to watch, crucially without the aid of lavish visual effects or fanciful weaponry.

As the title suggests, good old-fashioned swordplay takes centre stage here, in a series of intense battles where every swish of the blade is deliciously pronounced - and, more importantly, it keeps the requisite cheesy romance to a minimum.

What a relief it is for viewers, especially because of how grating Cecilia Liu Shishi (Scarlet Heart, 2011) is here as an ethereal courtesan and Shen's love interest.

Whenever she speaks in that breathy voice and looks up at him with that artificially pitiful expression, you wonder what he ever saw in her.

When this film, helmed by relatively unknown director Lu Yang (The Spectacular Theatre, 2010), was released in China in August, it was considered a box-office flop, with only 90 million yuan (S$18.7 million) in takings.

The White-Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom, another wuxia flick that opened there in the same week and which was heavily promoted in the media and backed by a top-notch cast that included Huang Xiaoming and Fan Bingbing, went on to earn more than 396 million yuan despite being widely panned by critics and general audiences alike.

Here is hoping that Blades finds its edge and draws blood at the Golden Horse Awards next month, where it is up for five awards, including deserving nominations for Best Actor (Chang) and Best Action Choreography.

yipwy@sph.com.sg

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