BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES II: THE INFERNAL BATTLEFIELD (2017) review

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Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades was one of 2014’s best surprises, a tightly-scripted, hard-hitting little wu xia pian made on a relatively small budget, and whose muted box-office was compensated by an almost unanimously positive critical response, and a following that has grown in the three years since its release. Now, director Lu Yang is back with a bigger budget, for a prequel – which will be followed by a sequel, following the Infernal Affairs trilogy template – focusing on Chang Chen’s character (with Wang Qianyuan and Ethan Li noticeably absent), and which he again-co-wrote with Chen Shu, while none other than Ning Hao stepped in as a producer.

It starts in 1619, in the blood-soaked aftermath of a battle between united Manchurians tribes and the troops of the Ming dynasty. Shen Lian (Chang Chen) is one of the few survivors, and he saves the life of Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi), who was about to be executed. Eight years laters, a few months before the events of the first film, Shen Lian is now a captain of the elite imperial guards known as the Jinyiwei, and Lu Wenzhao is his friend and superior officer, spending much of his time groveling to the all-powerful eunuch Wei (Chin Shih Chieh) for a promotion. The emperor has recently escaped death when his Dragon ship sank suddenly and mysteriously, but he is in the throes of a pneumonia that may claim his life any day. A government official has been murdered, and Shen Lian was forcibly removed from investigating that case, even though it fell under his jurisdiction. And when he is sent to assassinate dissident painter Bei Zhai (Yang Mi) ), whose nature paintings he has been collecting, he realizes the attempt on the emperor’s life, the murder of the government official and the assassination order on the person of Bei Zhai may all be part of a conspiracy, of which he is in danger of becoming the scapegoat…

Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield has all the qualities of the first film, while correcting some of its rare faults. Once again, Lu Yang and Chen Shu have crafted a superb narrative: complex but never overly convoluted, it requires an effort from the audience but never becomes abstruse, delivering ample reward for those who follow it actively. Built with layers of treachery and deceit, it is a thing of beauty: its twists and turns are not simply artificial generators of tension and surprise, they are also impressively evocative brush strokes in a nuanced portrait of human nature. As in the first film, no one among the characters is without sin, and noble aspirations can coexist, within the same person, with baser instincts. The subplot involving a dissident artist might even be a sly nod at the current situation in the People’s Republic of China, implying that in four centuries, some things have not changed in the Middle Empire.

With the absence of Wang Qianyuan and Ethan Li’s characters, the theme of brotherhood takes a backseat to its shady counterpart, conspiracy; it is a masterful inversion of the first film’s thematic crux, and a realistic look at the pyramidal structure of such schemes:  whether their motives be justified or not, they always rely on expendable assets, not all of whom know that they are expendable. And this time, Lu Yang weaves History – albeit a loose take on it – more closely into the plot, resulting in a more epic feel compared to its predecessor’s more contained plot. A rare quibble would be that this prequel doesn’t fit perfectly into the first film. It ends a few months before it, with no indication that Shen Lian already knows Lu Jianxing and Jin Yichuan (Wang Qianyuan and Ethan Li’s characters); which is surprising considering their friendship in the first film seems deep-rooted. However, the writer-director mercifully doesn’t fall into the common trap of taking a bigger budget as an excuse to overblow his follow-up (remember Highlander 2 and Chronicles of Riddick, to name but two).

Still, this is indeed a bigger, more spectacular film. Lu Yang’s direction is superbly assured, classical yet gritty and occasionally slightly offbeat (a black cat repeatedly works his way into wonderful wide shots). Han Qi Ming’s cinematography is more lush, its chiaroscuros more expressive; Liang Ting Ting’s costumes are more ornate, and the sets are richer, the locations more varied, the camerawork more intricate. It is a joy to behold. Replacing Nathan Wang, whose fine themes enhanced the first film, Kenji Kawai has composed one of his best, most resonant scores in recent years. But nowhere does the film improve more flamboyantly on its predecessor than in the fight scenes. Brotherhood of Blades was no slouch when it came to sword fights, but its small budget and quick film shoot gave the action scenes a rushed feel, with ellipsis and quick-fire editing often covering up for the lack of time to polish the choreography and stuntwork. But this time, returning action director Sang Lin finally has the means of his ambitions, and the film is full of exciting showdowns featuring a delightful variety of weapons (swords, maces, claws, spears, rifles, grenades, bolas and more) and excitingly shot with heroic flourishes. The final combat, a last stand in front of a bridge, is a marvelous “few against many” fight scene where the narrative and emotional strands of the film are resolved thunderously, with an epic but, again, not overblown feel that is perfectly measured.

At the center of the film, Chang Chen is in full mastery of his role: Shen Lian, after two films, is now a fascinating character, presenting the hallmarks of a regular hero – courageous, handsome, individualistic, a fierce and skilled fighter – while having traits that both soften him (he has been in love with two women across two films, he is an art enthusiast) and darken him (a numbness in the face of death, and surprisingly fluid moral principles). We simply cannot wait to meet him again. And he is surrounded by a cast that is, like in the first film, simply excellent. Yang Mi effectively embodies purity in Lu Yang’s shady universe, while Zhang Yi is expectedly outstanding in a role both quietly sympathetic, affectingly tragic and subtly ridiculous, and Lei Jiayin steals scenes as a jovial but deadly imperial guard. Even characters that are not developed much are brought vividly to life: Xin Zhilei impresses as a steely, deadly henchwoman, and Chin Shih Chieh once again is wonderfully slimy and devious as eunuch Wei. Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield tripled its predecessor’s box-office results in Mainland China; let’s hope this is enough to greenlight the planned third film, in what has the potential to be one of the most compelling film trilogies in the world. Stay until the end for a pointless but pleasant post-credits cameo.

Long Story Short: An impressive prequel, Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield is just as compelling as the first film, but more visually epic and even more narratively ambitious. ****1/2

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