Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 118 mins.
Director: Lu Yang 路阳.
Gripping, meatily written prequel maintains the original’s quality and feeling of re-invention.
Northeast China, AD 1619, late Ming dynasty, spring. In the battle of Sarhu versus the Manchu Late Jin dynasty, the Ming suffers heavy losses and defeat. Amid the slaughter, Shen Lian (Zhang Zhen) manages to rescue a couple of Ming soldiers from certain death, including Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi), who is eternally grateful. Eight years later, in the summer of AD 1627, Shen Lian, now a senior member of the Northern Bureau of the jinyiwei 锦衣卫 (military secret police), is first at the scene of a multiple murder in a restaurant in southern Beijing; among the dead is Guo Zhen (Liu Tingzuo), a eunuch who worked for the dreaded Eastern Depot secret police, run by Wei Zhongxian (Jin Shijie), of whom the jinyiwei are effectively the military branch. Because of the case’s high profile, Shen Lian is determined to handle it himself and fights off an attempt by a less senior jinyiwei, Ling Yunkai (Wu Qiang), to take it over. However, Ling Yunkai gets his revenge by arresting one of Shen Lian’s men, Yin Cheng (Yang Yi), for telling drunken stories about the emperor. Rather than be taken to the hellish imperial prison, Yin Cheng chooses death at the hand of Shen Lian, his friend and superior. Later, Shen Lian visits Yong’an temple, in the hills outside Beijing, to pay for prayers for Yin Cheng; in return, the head monk, Jinghai (Yuan Wenkang), gives him a painting by Bai Zhai, Shen Lian’s favourite artist. In the hills in the rain, Shen Lian bumps into a mysterious young woman (Yang Mi) who isn’t fazed by the fact that he’s a jinyiwei. Back in Beijing, Shen Lian hears from Lu Wenzhao, now a senior figure in the Northern Bureau, that Bei Zhai is to be arrested for sedition, as a member of the Donglin Movement 东林党. Shen Lian accompanies the arresting officer, Ling Yunkai, and discovers that Bei Zhai is the young woman he met in the hills. Shen Lian stops Ling Yunkai from raping Bei Zhai and eventually kills him – but not before Ling Yunkai tells him that he’s the nephew of the all-powerful Wei Zhongxian. Bei Zhai escapes and Shen Lian claims he and Ling Yunkai were ambushed. Ling Yunkai’s death is investigated not by the Northern Bureau but by the Southern Bureau, as Lu Wenzhao wants to avoid any suspicion of favouritism. The investigation is handled by Pei Lun (Lei Jiayin), who used to be in the Northern Bureau and claims to have met Shen Lian before. Shen Lian is contacted by some of the Donglin rebels, led by swordswoman Ding Baiying (Xin Zhilei), who blackmail him into burning down the Northern Bureau’s archives. Shen Lian discovers the archives contain documents vital to Wei Zhongxian’s current investigation of a recent assassination attempt on the weak emperor. As Pei Lun closes in on him, Shen Lian finds himself immersed in a web of conflicting loyalties and uncovers a complex plot to break the power of Wei Zhongxian over the sickly emperor.
Everything that was true about the original 2014 film – the most satisfying wuxia movie since Reign of Assassins 剑雨 (2010) – is also true for its prequel, Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield 绣春刀II 修罗战场. Again eschewing 3-D, flashy visual effects, big stars and a reliance on Hong Kong talent both behind and in front of the camera, the Mainland production delivers two hours of gripping action drama, mixing whodunit elements, political intrigue and meaty performances in an original story centred on the Ming dynasty’s feared military police, the jinyiwei 锦衣卫. A rare follow-up that not only hews to the first film’s template but also maintains its quality, the movie has the same sense of re-invention while staying within the genre’s broad parameters. Unlike the 2014 film, whose weak box office (RMB93 million) was partly due to a poor marketing campaign despite good word-of-mouth, BoBII has been rewarded with a much more deserving hawl of three times that amount.
The cast carries over only two actors from the first film – Taiwan’s Zhang Zhen 张震 and his veteran compatriot Jin Shijie 金士杰, as the conflicted jinyiwei Shen Lian and the all-powerful Ming-dynasty eunuch Wei Zhongxian, a real-life figure who’s appeared as the villain in numerous costume dramas. More importantly, almost all of the key crew have reassembled, including Beijing-born writer-director Lu Yang 路阳, 38, who came out of almost nowhere with his minor festival hit My Spectacular Theatre (2010); Hangzhou-born writer Chen Shu 陈舒, 35, who’s written all four of Lu’s features; tyro d.p. Han Qiming 韩淇名 (To Forgive 查无此人, 2012); stylist Liang Tingting 梁婷婷, whose prior work includes the more radically re-imagined (and less successful) wuxia The Sword Identity 倭寇的踪迹 (2011) and Judge Archer 箭士柳白猿 (2012), by Xu Haofeng 徐浩峰; and action director Sang Lin (The Crossing 太平轮 duo, 2014-15). The main newbie this time round is prolific Japanese composer Kawai Kenji 川井宪次, whose resonant, chordal score is a big help in maintaining a sense of ominous tension.
The story is set during the summer of 1627, a few months prior to the first film, which had opened with the accession of a new emperor and his expulsion of the all-powerful eunuch Wei Zhongxian, head of the dreaded Eastern Depot secret police (the Ming dynasty’s Gestapo). As with the first film, Chen centres her screenplay on a credible what-if plot: what if the accession of the new emperor (the teenage younger brother of the sickly present one) and Wei Zhongxian’s subsequent downfall had been engineered by members of the Donglin Movement 东林党, a persecuted group of Confucian intellectuals devoted to cleansing the Ming’s rotten bureaucracy? And what if the Donglin had penetrated the highest ranks of even the jinyiwei, the Ming dynasty’s SS?
It’s a great idea that doesn’t stretch the facts too far and is again persuasively recounted from the point-of-view of the same (fictional) jinyiwei, Shen Lian, who finds himself sucked into the shadowy events. Though it’s not based on a wuxia novel, the script has the authentic feel of an adaptation, even down to a slightly cramped feeling (especially in the second half) from compressing a mass of plot and character reversals into a two-hour running time. The end credits, featuring brush paintings of the main characters, also position it within the classic wuxia canon going back to the films of Hu Jinquan 胡金铨 [King Hu], for whom the Ming dynasty was a favourite era.
All that apart, Lu has created an equally persuasive movie, starting with a dark, bloody prologue in which a crucial friendship is forged and then beginning the main story with an equally dark murder mystery that kick-starts Shen Lian’s gradual immersion in the plot. In fact, BoBII is much darker overall, to a point where every action scene, apart from the finale, takes place at night or in gloomy interiors – a habit that soon becomes irritating, especially as the action is better staged this time round. It’s the biggest flaw in the movie, even though it could be said to heighten the effect of the finale, staged in full daylight.
Not a very expressive actor at the best of times, Zhang is again well cast as the dedicated jinyiwei whose principles are stretched by all the political machinations. It’s the surrounding characters who drive him and the story, and are again equally characterful, especially Zhang Yi 张译 (so good as the goofy-looking detective in Blood of Youth 少年, 2016) as Shen Lian’s protector. In the film’s most complex role, Zhang, 39, more often seen in supporting parts, steals every scene he’s in, from the lightly comedic to deadly serious; he also gets the most chilling speech in the whole film, describing the jinyiwei‘s all-pervasive reach into Ming life (“With a mere flick of the fingers we can make black become white…”). Equally good as Shen Lian’s dogged nemesis is TV-theatre actor Lei Jiayin 雷佳音, 33, whose rare big-screen appearances include the leads in period heist movie Guns and Roses 黄金大劫案 (2012, directed by Ning Hao 宁浩, lead producer on BoBII) and black comedy Memento 记忆碎片 (2016). As the creepily evil Eunuch Wei, Jin again leaves a big impression despite appearing in relatively few scenes.
On the female side, Yang Mi 杨幂 is just okay as a painter who belongs to the Donglin movement, failing to establish a strong enough profile amid all the other meaty roles, despite a promising start. Bringing more heft to her role in fewer scenes (alas) is TV actress Xin Zhilei 辛芷蕾, 31 – the lead character in horror Bunshinsaba II 笔仙II (2013), the cellist in Blood of Youth – as a super-swordswoman who’s one of the Donglin leaders.
Presented by Huamanshan (Shanghai) Pictures (CN), JQ Pictures (CN), Beijing Free Whale Pictures (CN), Dongyang Dirty Monkey (CN).
Script: Chen Shu, Lu Yang, Yu Yang. Photography: Han Qiming. Editing: Zhu Liyun, Tu Yiran. Music: Kawai Kenji. Art direction: Zhao Yu. Styling: Liang Tingting. Sound: Wang Gang, Liu Xiaosha. Action: Sang Lin. Martial arts: Gao Ruigang. Special effects: Xu Jian. Executive direction: Liu Huang.
Cast: Zhang Chen (Shen Lian), Yang Mi (Bei Zhai/Miao Xuan), Zhang Yi (Lu Wenzhao), Lei Jiayin (Pei Lun), Xin Zhilei (Ding Baiying), Jin Shijie (Wei Zhongxian), Liu Duanduan (Zhu Youjian/Prince Xin), Li Yuan (Ding Chong, Ding Baiying’s disciple), Liu Fengchao (Zheng), Yang Yi (Yin Cheng), Yuan Wenkang (Jinghai, monk), Wu Qiang (Ling Yunkai), Wu Xiaoliang (Ding Tai), Li Hongtao (Xu Xianchun), Ma He (Tian Ergeng), Liu Tingzuo (Guo Zhen), Wang Renjun (Zhu Youxiao, emperor), Jiang Xiaochong (Jiang Xiaoya), Zhao Yilong (Xu Yingyuan), Chen Qiwei (Ding An), Hu Shiqun (young Shen Lian), Wang Weihua (Shen Lian’s father).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival, 18 Jun 2017.
Release: China, 19 Jul 2017.