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.

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SWORD MASTER (2016) review

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As an actor, Derek Yee had gotten his break playing handsome swordsmen in numerous Shaw Brothers film, including Chu Yuan’s Death Duel (1977). As a director however, he has mostly favored contemporary, urban and often gritty fare. Now in a full circle he offers Sword Master, a remake of Death Duel co-produced and co-written with Tsui Hark, whose early career had seen him help Hong Kong cinema move past the classicism of Shaw Brothers films, but whose recent films have tried to both recapture and update their narrative and technical tenets. This interesting pair-up has yielded a flawed but stimulating film.

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CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY (2016) review

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Making a sequel to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon always seemed both natural and foolish, audacious and misguided. The 2001 film was adapted from one in a series of novels by Wang Du Lu, thus lending itself naturally to follow-ups; but it was so acclaimed that it made for a tough act to follow. There was then a interesting challenge to shooting a second film, but at the same time the absence of Ang Lee or someone with a similarly strong vision at the helm did not bode well, Yuen Woo Ping having always been hit-and-miss as a director. The film’s production was troubled, its release pattern controversial (it premiered on Netflix in the West, prompting many IMAX chains to refuse to screen it in the US), and its English soundtrack head-scratching. But those factors weren’t in and of themselves indicative of failure, especially with so much talent behind and in front of the camera.

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BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES (2014) review

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In the year 1627, the Ming dynasty is in its final years as emperor Chongzhen takes over the throne, and in the process expels powerful Chief Eunuch Wei (Chin Shih Chieh) from his position of power. But a large number of court officials are still secretly in the service of the Eunuch, forming the so-called “Clique” that the emperor decides to dismantle. His prime resource in doing that is the “Jinyiwei”, his imperial assassins who are tasked with arresting, getting a confession out of, and/or killing, all presumed members of the Clique. Three Jinyiwei are chosen for the critical mission of finding and killing the Eunuch himself: Shen Lian (Chang Chen), who is in unrequited love with a courtesan (Cecilia Liu) and is saving up to buy her freedom, Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan) who is desperate to meet his father’s standards by getting a promotion and is ready to bribe his way to it, and Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li), who is being blackmailed by a former friend (Zhou Yiwei) who threatens to reveal their criminal past and the fact he stoile a man’s identity to become a Jinyiwei. The fact that their new superior (Nie Yuan) is a pawn of the Eunuch further complicates the matters and soon an intricate web of lies unravels with tragic consequences.

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THE AVENGING EAGLE (1978) review

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While he didn’t achieve the same status as fellow directors Chang Cheh, Yuan Chu or Liu Chia-Liang within the Shaw Brothers roster of talent, Sun Chung has nevertheless given the legendary Hong Kong film studio some of its most original and/or striking classics. From his trailblazing use of steadycam to film martial arts fights in The Kung Fu Instructor, to the unhinged weirdness of Human Lanterns, Sun left an unmistakable though unsung mark in the Shaw catalogue. The Avenging Eagle might just be his best achievement. It follows Chi Min-Sing (Ti Lung), who is part of a brotherhood of assassins known as the Eagles, all raised by and obeying to the cruel Yue Xi-Hong (Ku Feng), who sends them on missions to murder his enemies. When Chi is gravely wounded in one of these missions, he is taken in by a generous man, whose daughter he falls in love with. She urges him to not kill anymore and become a good man, but the pressure from Yue and the Eagles proves too strong : soon Chi is back in the murdering business, and he can’t stop the man who saved him and the woman he loves from being assassinated by his ‘brothers’. But after having committed the unthinkable by murdering a pregnant woman on his master’s order, Chi finally decides to run away from the Eagles and look for the murdered woman’s husband to atone for his crime. During his escape he meets a nameless man (Alexander Fu-Sheng), who decides to help him, seemingly out of the kindness of his heart. But it is soon discovered he has hidden motives, and unsuspected fighting abilities…

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BUTTERFLY & SWORD (1993) review

The synopsis for Butterfly & Sword says that the film is about “a loyalist (Michelle Yeoh) who attempts to keep the King’s empire from being overthrown by a revolutionary group.” It’s good to know, especially since you’d never guess that’s what it is about, even after watching the film itself. Still, circa 1993, a Hong Kong film with no discernable plot was not an unusual thing to say the least, and the idea of a film starring not only the magnificent Michelle Yeoh, but also martial arts god Donnie Yen and the actor’s actor that is known as Tony Leung Chiu Wai, should be enough to be lenient with the film’s narrative shortcomings. Well not really after all : Butterfly & Sword is simply too infuriating in its scattershot storytelling and slapdash action scenes.

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BLADE OF FURY (1993) review

  Blade of Fury is a peculiar film within the abundant filmography of Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, the director : it was an assignment he took to help Lo Wei, the once-prominent director of two Bruce Lee films, Big Boss and Fist of Fury. Now fallen from grace, Lo Wei needed a well-established director badly to step up and direct this Wu Xia Pan during the early-nineties craze for the costumed epics. In came Sammo Hung, but serendipitously, the plot for Blade of Fury is said to have deeply echoed Hung’s personal beliefs, which he seldom got to express in film, given the often lighter tone of his other films as director. In the film, the legendary Ti Lung plays Tan Szu-Tung a government official travelling to Beijing with his disciple (Cynthia Khan), where advancement awaits him. On the road he meets Wong Wu, a lone swordsman (Yeung Fan), who helps him thwart a bandit raid. It’s the beginning of a friendship that will lead to the two joining forces to try and implement reforms in imperial China.

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WHAT PRICE SURVIVAL (1994) review

The one-armed sworsman is a fixture of Chinese cinema, from the original Shaw Brothers trilogy directed by Chang Cheh and starring first Wang Yu, then David Chiang, to countless crossovers (including Zatoichi vs. the One-armed Swordsman) and variants (for instance The One-armed Swordsmen or The One-armed Swordswoman). But by 1994, when Daniel Lee’s What Price Survival was released, it had all but disappeared, due in part to the fact it had been done to death, and in part to the fact that Wu Xia Pan’s and costumed epics in general weren’t that popular anymore during the eighties.

What Price Survival is Daniel Lee’s very first film and, as he wrote it, one of his most personal. Its setting is contemporary, but in a timeless way by which people still carry swords. Visually, as with any Daniel Lee film (save for the odious Black Mask), it is a treat : gorgeous snowy landscape captured by Lee’s DP of choice Tony Cheung, dozens of men in black long coats wielding swords, two lovers playfully fighting through lonely rays of light in an abandoned mansion… Narratively however, the struggle for coherence begins.

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