Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield
Chang Chen, Yang Mi, Lei Jiaxin, Shih-Chieh King
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…a taut, urgent thriller more than a historical spectacle…
With its labyrinthine conspiracies, endemic corruption, flawed and fallen protagonists, and sudden, sometimes shocking violence, director Yu Lang’s follow-up to his 2014 breakthrough hit, Brotherhood of Blades, resembles nothing so much as a kind of wuxia take on the modern noir classic, L.A. Confidential. If that sounds like your cup of ming tea, you’re in for a good time.
Our scene is set in 17th century China, where war veteran turned Imperial Guard (think federal police) Shen Lian (Chang Chen) is given the job of tracking down a seditious artist, Bei Zhai (Yang Mi) whose paintings are said to mock the Emperor. Sedition, under the strict rule of the Ming dynasty, means death, which is a bit of a problem considering Shen himself is a fan of the artist, and needs to cover his own tracks while attempting to track down the culprit. But there are bigger fish to fry – a rebellious cabal is attempting to cover up their role in a failed assassination attempt on the Emperor, and soon Shen finds himself framed and on the run, teaming up with rival cop Pei Lun (Lei Jiaxin) to try and take down the real villains and clear his name.
If that sounds a little complicated, it is, and keeping a handle on the plot machinations takes a fair bit of focus. Thankfully, this is a prequel to Brotherhood of Baldes rather than a sequel, so we don’t have to worry about figuring out any dangling plot threads from the last film. Indeed, only leading man Chang Chen (western audiences should know him from his turn as the bandit Dark Cloud in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Shih-Chieh King, reprising his role as sinister eunuch Wei Zhongxian, return for Infernal Battlefield.
It’s a remarkably noirish story, and while tales of conspiracies against the empire are pretty old hat for the wuxia genre (go see Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame if you haven’t already), it’s hard to recall one that was a cynical as this specimen. Personal agendas conflict with professional ones, everyone’s playing an angle and the government is viewed not so much as an institution worth elevating or protecting, but the only alternative to base anarchy – and perhaps only a little better. It’s pretty transgressive stuff for the normally conservative Chinese film industry.
At the heart of it all is Chang Chen’s Shen, a morally flawed hero on par with any noir gumshoe. Shen’s heroism, if oyu can call it that, is born out of pragmatism – one of his key motivations is covering up his accidental murder of another Imperial Guard, and at another point he all but forces a subordinate to commit suicide to prevent reparations against the rest of his squad. He’s not quite the Chinese epic version of The Shield‘s Vic Mackey, but he’s a far cry from the usual resolutely honourable heroes that tend to populate this sort of thing.
The end result is a taut, urgent thriller more than a historical spectacle, a film that spends more time in back alleys and bandit hideouts than showering the audience with sweeping vistas of Old China, and it’s all the more refreshing for it.