Blades cuts to the chase with old-school action
BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES
Period action/106 minutes/Opens today
Immediately after a new emperor takes over the Ming Dynasty court, he orders the downfall of eunuch Wei and his supporters, a group that 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 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's character, is obviously good or bad, which makes them 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.
Viewers remain sympathetic towards the three assassins 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 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. More importantly, the film keeps the requisite cheesy romance to a minimum.
What a relief it is for viewers, especially when Cecilia Liu Shishi (Scarlet Heart, 2011) is so grating 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 was heavily promoted in the media, and backed by a top-notch cast that includes 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's 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.