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.

Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades is a rare delight: a classy wuxia pian with a plot that is neither simplistic nor overcomplicated and tangled. The writer-director’s superb script (co-written with Chen Shu) is dense and intricate without forsaking clarity: numerous double-crosses and hidden allegiances are played out and revealed in a pacy, exciting narrative that is remarkably free of any major plot-holes or lapses in logic, and is resolved in a mostly airtight way. It is populated with complex, interesting characters that rarely fit the mould of a hero or a villain: the three main characters, while being the film’s main focus and having the audience’s sympathy, are good men who have all compromised themselves with selfish, dishonest and/or greedy acts whose consequences they must reap while trying to limit the collateral damage. Even the character that is halfway through the film confirmed to be the villain of the piece, obeys to principles many would understandably identify with. It’s all shades of grey, striped with red from the blood spilled in numerous action scenes peppered throughout.

Now, the film was made on a budget (5 million $) that might already be considered small in the ever-expanding Chinese film industry, and in a relatively short amount of time for this kind of film (a bit more than 3 months), and while you wouldn’t guess that from Nathan Wang’s superb orchestral score, it does show in the mostly studio-bound – though tasteful – aesthetic and the sometimes slightly rushed feel of the action sequences’ choreography and editing. The numerous and pleasing swordfights are indeed tense and exciting, and made all the more so thanks to the emotional involvement created by the script and performances, but the film would have benefited from more creative choreography and less fast-cutting in the editing.

The cast is uniformly good: Chang Chen is a fine brooding and conflicted hero, and his chemistry with the excellent Wang Qianyuan and the likeable (if a bit bland) Ethan Li is one of the film’s many strengths. Still, we can’t help but think a more prestigious and hard-hitting cast might have given the film a more memorable and iconic status, though budgetary constraints might be to blame in this case, and in the end the film is indeed blessed with a tight ensemble cast where even smaller roles leave a mark, like the charismatic Zhou Yiwei as a blackmailer with more heart than expected, and the striking Zhu Dan as the Eunuch’s bodyguard.

Long Story Short : A classy, pacy, exciting and intricate wuxia pian that is emotionally involving, narratively satisfying and visually pleasing. A hidden gem that deserves more exposure. ****1/2

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