Shaw Brothers Saturdays: They ain’t heavy, they’re my ‘Blood Brothers’
Directed by Chang Cheh
1973, Hong Kong
In the vast landscape of films that came out of this most famous of Hong Kong studios, far and few between are those which can be remembered for concentrating their efforts as much if not more so on developing a story which could stand on its own apart from all the wild action. A bit of equilibrium every now and then is much welcomed, despite how on the nose the drama might be at times. Chang Cheh’s 1973 romantic epic Blood Brothers is one such film.
Inspired by true events, the story is set in the time of the Ching Dynasty in China. A young man named Chang Wen Hsiang (played by Cheh regular David Chiang) is brought to court in shackles for the murder of a great general. Rebellion uprising? Petty thug who wanted to make it rich somehow? Neither, as the audience discovers over the next couple hours while Chang writes down his confession to the judge. In a former life Chang and his partner in crime Huang Chang (Chen Kuan-tai) made the acquaintance of one Ma Xinyi (Ti Lung, another actor who appeared in several of Cheh’s movies) by trying to rob him on a dusty road between towns. It turns out Ma was just as skilled a fighter as the two assailants and, having been mightily impressed with their abilities, offers them a chance to join him in his much desired rise to fame by becoming a general in the army. From there begins the trio’s remarkable journey from low life to high life. First a group of fighters to command, then an entire school of combat training, then the military exams for Ma. The one sore spot that might derail the entire ordeal is the unquestionable romantic connection between Ma and Huang’s wife, Mi Lan (Ching Li). What might come of this little detail?…
Chang Cheh was a remarkably prolific director during his illustrious career at Shaw. With so many films under his belt, it is no surprise that not all of them are of top notch quality. Blood Brothers thankfully falls into the ‘good’ camp. In fact, it is very, very good for great number of reasons. To begin with, Chang delivers a significant sense of sweep, both regarding the emotions and the epic visuals, despite that the film runs at two hours. So many self-described epics necessitate three hours or more as if it were some sort of prerequisite, yet Chang delivers the goods in 120 minutes, smartly directing the story and characters with the absolute correct beats to extract whatever each individual scene needs to convey in order for the audience to appreciate what is happening, and to allow the plot to zip onwards. There is no sense that things are being needlessly rushed, be they critical character beats or intense battle scenes, which was the primary pitfall the film could have fallen into. By the film’s downbeat ending, the viewer has a full sense of who everybody was and why exactly they each suffered the fates bestowed upon them.
Arguably the film’s most curious and by that nature compelling element is how the apparent villain of the piece, Ma Xinyi, is portrayed. It has less to do with Ti Lung’s performance, which is perfectly fine for its stoicism, and more to do with how the story treats him. From the very get go it is clear as daylight that this is an ambitious young man with lofty ideas about his future. Both Huang and Chang feel as though they are more along for the ride to reap the benefits of Ma’s rise to power than anything else. While it is true that in order to gain prominence as a warrior and hero, Ma must naturally dispatch hoards of enemies for the state, yet the film never focuses on that aspect as being inherently vile. Ma is a strict leader whose main concerns are professional, but that in of itself that does not make him a bad person. Where things grow complicated is when Huang’s wife Mi Lan takes a liking to Ma’s stout determination to prove his worth and make a name for himself, which very much unlike her husband who likes to slouch around drinking (when he is not destroying enemies of course). It is Mi’s increasing affections for Ma, affections he chooses to return after many years, which eventually brings him to do terrible things to his once blood brothers Huang and Chang. Without resorting to any misogyny, the director dictates that Mi Lan is the one who gives rise to the problems which plague the trio of friends in the late stages, not anything Ma instigated. This aspect creates an ambiguity of sorts. After all, who really is being a villain here? No one, really, certainly not until the very late stages of the film…
One final point to make is about actor David Chiang, who gives one of the more complete performances of his career. So many movies, like Wandering Swordsman, The Water Margin and Have Sword Will Travel, simply ask him to behave in his typical charming manner. Charming he is, but he only rarely shows a different side to his acting abilities. Upon discovering what is transpiring between Mi Lan and Ma, the character of Chang becomes deadly serious, offended even by the emotional betrayal on display. David Chiang knocks the performance out of the park, proving that there is more to him than just a smarmy grin.
Blood Brothers is a different breed of Shaw Brothers movie making. While definitely giving viewers some action to satisfy the lust for great martial arts, Chang Cheh does seem genuinely concerned about the story, which makes for a refreshing change of pace. It is on the melodramatic side of things, as are so many Hong Kong films, but if one can get past that, Blood Brothers is worth discovering.