One of the commonly celebrated phenomena in human society is when several individuals, previously strangers to one another, come together in order to achieve a common goal, be it professional, to thwart a threat, create or accomplish something that speaks to each on an emotional level. The commonalities that bond humans must sometimes be learned the hard way, therefore making them feel all the more precious when they bring people together, which speaks volumes about the human spirit. Not all goals are of equal measure of course, but regardless of what evokes the aforementioned feeling of connectedness, the results are sure to satisfy. Lo Wei’s 1970 film Brothers Five, which has five young men of various talents discover their blood bond and seek revenge for the death of their father….completely avoids exploring that theme in favour of wall-to-wall action.
The Flying Dragon Villa has conducted its business under the tyrannical reign of one Master Lung Cheng Feng (Tien Feng) for several years already. What has been long forgotten is that its previous leader was a far more magnanimous individual, but he fell to Feng’s wrath, leaving five young sons in the care of various merchants and lesser martial artists. Miss Yan (Chang Pei-Pei), a descendant of one of the Villa’s former occupants has made conceited efforts into locating all five sons across the land and bring them together to right some serious wrongs. The five sons are blacksmith Gao Hao (Chin Han), master thief Gao Hsia (Lo Lieh), security officer Gao Yung (Kao Yuen), Gao Chih (Chang Yi) and Gao Wei (Yueh Hua).
Brothers Five is a difficult film to measure for it succeeds impressively in some respects while completely floundering in others to practically comical length. The purpose of movies such as this one, when push comes to shove, is to entertain with spectacular action and a sense of adventure. The best ones also have great stories, characters, memorable dialogue and can actually share some thoughts on the world, but, as written, those are the best ones. Ultimately, a martial arts flick will be judged primarily, although not exclusively, on its creativity and effectiveness in showcasing some delicious stunt work emulating the prowess of masters of combat. If other elements fail to materialize, the movie may still earn a pass, if only barely.
Lo Wei and his team of filmmakers take a different approach to impressively evoke the geography of fight scenes. From a technical standpoint, Brothers Five is a pleasing experience. The director avoids getting caught up in chaos of battle and instead depicts martial contests with a keen eye for their grandeur. The majority of the fights involve multiple participants, save the very first one, and as such Lo Wei decides to capture the action by taking full use of the widescreen lens, doing so to great effect. His camera performs some unusually simple yet pitch perfect tasks, such as just having the camera rest at a certain distance from the action so that many of the smaller skirmishes between singular foes within the larger battle are captured. Other times the camera is positioned in such a way that, as the titular siblings are hacking down various guards near the gate to Flying Dragon Villa, more guards can be running in the distance to aid their brethren. In truth, the director is not flaunting any special cinematographic techniques, he is merely choosing really interesting positions for his frame to capture as much information as possible, therefore limiting the number of cuts. Even in close quarters combat Lo Wei prefers turning his camera from right to left to focus on what is important to tell the battle’s story rather than cut it bits.
Technical splendor aside, despite the movie being stacked with a cast of immensely recognized talent, Brothers Five offers next to nothing in terms of story or pathos. The introductory paragraph to the current review is a tease for how the film’s plot plays out in comparison to what it obviously wants its audience to feel. There is mention of past betrayal which saw the Flying Dragon Villa fall into the hands of a despot, there are scenes in which long lost brothers convene for the first time in their lives, there are scenes of Miss Yan training the quintet in preparation for their inevitable assault on Master Lung and his minions, yet none of it really matters. Plot points are dealt with so matter-of-factly and so quickly that everything about the characters comes across as afterthought. It would not be an exaggeration to say that over half of the movie’s running time is devoted to the fight scenes. A 10 minute battle erupts, followed by about 3 minutes of dialogue only for another 10 minute skirmish afterwards and so on and so forth. Part of the issue is that each brother is introduced individually through a series fights with Master Lung’s army, all before the final prolonged battle when the brothers finally attack their common enemy as one. The movie suffers from an overdose of action with story only as a negligible side serving.
It is easy to be smitten with Lo Wei’s directorial style. He takes a much subtler but no less potent approach to visually demonstrate the complexity and nuances of large scale battle. It feels really good to able to see so much within the picture frame without the cinematography calling attention to itself. On the downside is the embarrassingly low level of attention paid to the actual story which, based on the barebones information the viewer does get, could have been satisfying.