Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘All Men Are Brothers’ proves to be a satisfying conclusion

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All Men Are Brothers

Directed by Chang Cheh

Written by Chang Cheh and Kuang Ni

Hong Kong, 1975

In 1972, The Water Margin exploded onto the Hong Kong cinema scene, courtesy of acclaimed director Chang Cheh, an eclectic cast and impressive production values that clearly upped the ante in comparison to most Shaw films which came before it in terms of scope. The movie was blessed with a sense of grandeur that took one’s breath away. Despite all the conceited efforts invested into producing a true epic, the film’s plot suffered terribly from a serious lack of momentum and stakes. 3 years later, the same director and screenwriters returned, as did much of Water’s cast, to conclude the tale of the Liang Shan outlaw gang in All Men Are Brothers, as they fight for the side of good in a tale of espionage and unabashedly gruesome combat.

All Men Are Brothers immediately sets the stage for the sort of mission the Liang Shan members are to embark on, with the opening scene depicting how one of its most celebrated heroes, Yan Qing (David Chiang), or ‘the Prodigy’ , succeeds in getting none other than the emperor himself to offer the gang a full pardon when they make each other’s acquaintance at a brothel of all places. Total freedom comes at a steep price however, as the emperor asks that in return, the Liang Shan warriors confront and eradicate a dangerous rebel, Fang La (Chu Mu), whose city stronghold, Hangchow, is protected on one side by the sea and on the other by a well guarded city wall, making the enemy virtually impenetrable.  Several platoons fighting under the Liang Shan flag are mercilessly slaughtered in their attempts to take the city by assault, leaving the remaining members, among them Yan Qing, Black Whirlwind (Fan Mei-sheng), Sun Er Niang (Yue Fung, Wu Sung (Ti Lung) and Mr. Lu (Tetsuro Tamba) to conjure up a subtler plan, one that entails secretive infiltration to study the surroundings, understands its weak points and relay information back to camp to prepare for one final battle to end all battles…

The single most defining characteristic about Brothers is how, in many respects, it operates as a complete turnaround from how things were done by its predecessor. It begins with the actual plot. Whereas in Water Margin the script began by clumsily bouncing from character to character only to end up meandering  back and forth with repetitive rescue missions, Brothers’ arc is much more focused. After the first 10 minutes, which flatly reveal how Qing earns his band a pardon from the emperor and the deaths of some Liang Shan brothers, the film thankfully concentrates only on a handful of protagonists, instinctively aware whom exactly the audience will surely want to cheer for most and therefore allotting those individuals the greatest amount of screen time.

Additionally, the bare bones plot, rather than acting as a handicap given its blunt simplicity, ends up strengthening the film because Cheh can concentrate, first, on one specific plot element as opposed to too many as was the case in Margin and, second, on a matter that simply feels plenty more important than much of what happened in the previous film. In Brothers, the safety and security of China is at stake, its most critical enemy being the power hungry rebel general. A small portion of Liang Shan folk must operate clandestinely otherwise the success of the entire mission, as well as their chances at a pardon, evaporate into thin air. Strategy is therefore of greater concern in Brothers than it ever was in Margin although in truth, the characters did, theoretically, used some strategy in the previous installment. They simply did not do it very well. This sneaking about with occasional skirmishes against soldiers under the command of the city’s oppressor lends Brothers some intimacy in terms of tone and pace. Bombast is replaced with cunning and strategy for much of the picture, that is until the brutal fights commence. The scale of the production is toned down a notch or two (never too much, of course), yet this also somehow gives the picture a greater sense of character, probably because the setting itself, Hangchow, is so well defined  and the film spends a lot of time there, allowing the viewer to understand its infrastructure and sense of geography. It is all rather ironic that in a film in which the stakes are so high and the characters the director must juggle are many, everything feels so taut.

Brothers’ combat scenes display both inventiveness on the part of the filmmakers in terms of weapons used and context, while still embracing the gruesomeness that made Margin quite memorable at times. Black Whirlwind’s vigor on the battlefield makes him all the more lethal when swooping his two trusty axes around like a enraged madman. What he likes in cognitive skill he more than makes up for in ruthless efficiency when slicing through a series of hapless soldiers. Another battle occurs in close quarters, during which one character, once dispossessed of his weapon of choice, makes use of a massive log of wood to fend off his assailants. The intensity of the moment is ratcheted up tenfold, not to mention that the viewer never expects him to actually resort himself to such a technique, hence the added element of surprise. Once the Liang Shan heroes engage the enemy in full swing for the film’s climax, more unexpected pleasures reveal themselves, such a small sea skirmish and a Ti Lung’s character who has his arm sliced off yet continues to pursue a fleeing Fang La.  If anyone enjoys their action films with explicit blood and guts spewing out of freshly minced victims, this sequel cannot possibly disappoint.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that Brothers opts to do away with some of the characters viewers have come to accept as virtually invincible. No one of special significance perishes for at least the first half an hour, making the first major death, when it happens, seem all the more shocking. There is a dark, impending doom which follows the characters as if it were their own shadows. Unlike in the first films, this time whenever someone engages in combat, there are guarantees that the hero will be left standing when the dust settles.

The film may feature a handful of silly scenes, many of which involve Black Whirlwind, whose oafishness makes one wonder why his colleagues in arms keep on putting their faith in his abilities to follow orders, but ultimately Chang Cheh constructs a more than satisfying concluding adventure for the Liang Shan gang, one in which all bets are off, just as it should be in violent warfare!

-Edgar Chaput

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