Brothers Five [五虎屠龍] (1970)
Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Lo Lieh, Chang Yi, Yueh Hua, Chin Han, Kao Yuen, Tien Feng, Unicorn Chan, Wang Hsieh, Sammo Hung, Ku Feng, James Tin Jun, Lan Wei-Lieh, Chin Chun, Lee Wan Chung
Directed by Lo Wei
Expectations: High, Lo Wei’s been on a role.
As Lo Wei’s first film of the 1970s, Brothers Five comes off as the culmination of everything he had done prior. I said something similar about his previous film The Golden Sword, but this one seems to fit the bill even better. In terms of story, The Golden Sword struck the perfect balance between high-flying fights and martial intrigue, but Brothers Five sets its sights almost completely on delivering action-packed fight after action-packed fight. The film is chock full o’ fights, and while its story definitely suffers for it, no martial arts fan could deny the simple fun of watching a shitload of fights. And when those fights are choreographed by a young Sammo Hung finding his place in the martial arts film world, it’s even better.
I say that the story is thin, and that it’s the weakest point of the film, but Brothers Five does weave a very fun web of intrigue. Five brothers were separated at birth when the evil lord of Flying Dragon Villa murdered their father. The children’s caretaker sliced the backs of their left hands so that they would be able to one day reunite and take their revenge on the evil lord played perfectly by Tien Feng. The majority of the film is the brothers slowly coming together — usually by running into one another when they each venture to make a foolhardy assault on Flying Dragon Villa by themselves — so this means that a good portion of the runtime is devoted to something of a repeating cycle. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun cycle and it’s enjoyable as hell, but when you have multiple fights occurring at the same location, it does begin to run together a bit.
But as I mentioned before, these fights were choreographed by Sammo Hung and Simon Chui Yee-Ang, the same duo responsible for The Golden Sword. As Sammo Hung became the household name (at least to the cool people), I’m naturally going to attribute most of the choreography’s success to him, not to mention the fact that it feels like his work in the ’80s, albeit in its infancy. The choreography is much quicker than is usually seen at this time (not counting the undercranked stuff here), and Sammo places a much larger focus on integrating fists and legs in addition to the requisite swords. This creates a more fluid fight structure that allows the film to build tension within the fight, as the viewer is never quite sure what the combatants will do next. This style would become the hallmark of Hong Kong as the years progressed (and especially in the 1980s), after Sammo defected to Golden Harvest and the true struggle for martial arts studio dominance forced everyone to up their game considerably. It’s moments like these that really get me fired up, igniting my passion for the genre and for continuing this lengthy, chronological series. It’s cliche, but these moments that hint at the future of the genre are exactly why I do this.
This is never more apparent than in the end fight between the five brothers and Tien Feng. It is quite simply incredible, and easily one of the best fights to come out of the Shaw Brothers up to this point, if not the best. Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung were always the Shaw’s go-to guys when it came to choreography, but Sammo’s work here is fresh, exciting and absolutely invigorating. I have to imagine that the 18-year-old Sammo Hung frightened everyone just a bit with the quality of work he was able to crank out. Sammo crafts a fight that never lets up and ultimately ends spectacularly, if a bit overly fantastical. The bloodletting isn’t quite as carnivorous or glorified as Chang Cheh’s, but the emotions run just as high. I suppose it’s safe to say that Lo Wei not only launched the careers of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but also Sammo Hung, who gets his first speaking and fighting role about mid-way through this one. I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Sammo doubled Tien Feng in the more intricate moments of the end fight, as it’s clearly not Tien and the double looks a little larger than average around the middle.
So yeah, Lo Wei is absolutely killing it. At this point in his career he still had a couple of Shaw Brothers films in the pipeline, but he must have left shortly after this film’s release as his next film to come out was The Invincible Eight, the first ever film to be released under the Golden Harvest banner. Sammo Hung defected along with him, and helping to launch one of the greatest companies in martial arts film history. I am so tempted to do a similar series with Golden Harvest after this Shaw Brothers series, but while I’m crazy, I’m not nearly that fuckin’ crazy. But enough about the competitors… let’s get back to the film at hand. As I was saying Lo Wei is killing it here, and his direction has never been better. The action sequences are handled skillfully and with energy, utilizing every trick in the book to create a film as exciting as possible. This is over 40 years later, so obviously standards have changed, but it remains entertaining despite the time gap. It feels like a film a few years ahead of its time in terms of how it handles its story as well, eschewing a dense plot line for quality, kick-ass martial arts.
The acting is great from all, but veterans Cheng Pei Pei and Tien Feng pull out showstopping performances. Cheng was used to being the center of a story’s attention, but Brothers Five places her into something more akin to a supporting role. She helps to gather the brothers together, all while garbed in very distinct white robes and an impressive hat. Her costume stands out immediately and she remains in it throughout the film. She’s also relegated to a non-action role for most of the film too, something unheard of at the time. She was the leading female star in the action scene, so her inaction through most of the film helps to build tension, as everyone is aware of just how awesome she can be in a fight. And when she does let loose, she performs incredibly. A big reason is the amazing choreography already detailed, but her charismatic charm helps quite a bit.
Tien Feng plays the lead villain and he is truly a force to be reckoned with. Able to portray the kind-hearted father figure or the ruthless warlord son-of-a-bitch, Tien Feng is simply one of the best that Shaw had to offer. His role here is a bit one-note, but that note is like a brilliant, rich Beethoven symphony. As I mentioned above, I’m pretty sure he didn’t perform all the martial arts, but regardless his character is an absolute beast. He takes on the five brothers all at once and holds his own admirably.
Brothers Five is a little too long, spending more time than is necessary bringing everyone together, but it is an absolute triumph. It also proves once again that Lo Wei was consistently trying to move the genre forward (and in different ways than Chang Cheh was going), refusing to simply remake the same tired wuxia pictures over and over again. I had always heard lots of negative things about Lo Wei being a lazy director and very absent on the set, but at least in his Shaw Brothers years, his films show that he is anything but. That or he had some awesome assistant directors that were knocking it out of the park for him. Brothers Five is nearly all fights and it’s a ridiculous amount of fun. I’d highly recommend it to martial arts fans, as well as those looking to dip their toes into old school Shaw Brothers. It’s definitely one of the best from the early years.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Griffin Yueh Feng’s long-awaited return with The Golden Knight!