The Blood Brothers [刺馬] (1973)
AKA Dynasty of Blood, Chinese Vengeance
Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Cheng Miu, Wong Ching-Ho, Tin Ching, Yeung Chak-Lam, Fan Mei-Sheng, Danny Lee
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: Very high.
Immediately following the Shaw fanfare, The Blood Brothers explodes out of the gate. A man yells that Officer Ma has been assassinated. Oh no! This is definitely an attention-getting opening, but The Blood Brothers is actually a MUCH more reserved film than this opening would suggest. After the credits have played and the dust has settled, we learn that the assassin is Chang Wen Hsiang (David Chiang), and he asks the court to allow him some paper and ink to write down his tale. Chang doesn’t dispute that he killed Ma Hsin I (Ti Lung), but he insists that his reasoning will make sense once his full story has been told.
Nine years previous, Chang and his sworn brother Huang Chung (Chen Kuan Tai) are staking out a remote road in hopes of robbing whoever should pass their way. It’s been a slow day, but as they argue about possibly going elsewhere, a horse approaches. On it rides one Ma Hsin I, and soon Huang and Ma are trading blows. Ma is too formidable an opponent for this to be just a simple robbery, and Ma also challenges the two men with questions about the nature of the lives they lead. Ma makes an impression on them, as he is a natural leader with ambition, so the three become blood brothers and vow to join forces against the Taiping Army AKA the Long Hairs AKA the Hair Bandits. If I didn’t know the film was based on actual events, I might be inclined to think this was some kind of attack on hippies. 🙂
I can’t claim to know much about the Taiping Rebellion that the film is based around, but from what I gather these events are well-known throughout China and have been the subject of multiple films and television series. The most recent of these seems to be the 2007 Jet Li film The Warlords (which I haven’t seen), but there was also an earlier Shaw Bros. production made by Chang Cheh’s protege Pao Hsueh-Li in 1971: Oath of Death. That film was a hoot, with fun, creative Shaw gore and loads of action. The Blood Brothers couldn’t be further from that kind of tone.
Chang Cheh’s film is a serious drama before it is an action film, but while that would generally be an “Aw shucks” type of statement for a martial arts film, in this case Chang Cheh crafts one of his best, most affecting films. The Blood Brothers strikes a perfect balance between his large-scale epics like The Water Margin and his smaller character dramas like The Delinquent. The Blood Brothers contains some of Chang Cheh’s most effective drama work, as the character conflicts are simple, heart-wrenching and ambiguous. I could see both sides of the argument and I was torn between the two, and it made the film’s inevitable finale all the more bleak and sad. The film is probably a little long here and there, but for the most part Ni Kuang and Chang Cheh put together yet another great script.
The other component to successful drama is that the actors hold up their end of the bargain, and the leads of The Blood Brothers do an exceptional job. Ti Lung won a Special Jury Prize for his acting at the 1973 Golden Horse Awards and the 1973 Asia-Pacific Film Festival, and with good reason. His performance is one that oozes with repressed emotion and desire, and as he commands the characters on-screen he also commands the audience’s attention. David Chiang also won Best Actor at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival, and while his role is definitely more in line with his traditional screen persona, he does an outstanding job at it in The Blood Brothers. Just the idea that martial arts films were winning these types of major awards speaks to how important and culturally significant these films were at the time in Hong Kong. To the West, martial arts films are predominantly seen as Grindhouse trash, but films like The Blood Brothers prove that the genre was always capable of a higher level of art.
There isn’t a ton of fighting in The Blood Brothers, but you likely won’t notice as you’ll be drawn deep into the tale of heroic brotherhood. What you will notice is the exceptional choreography work from Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung. I want to say that what I saw here, in terms of hand-to-hand combat, represented a new high mark for the genre, but I’ve become too detached from this series over the last year or so to really make claims like that with any accuracy. In any case, when Chen Kuan-Tai and Ti Lung face off barehanded, it’s damn exciting. Just the fact that it’s two of Shaw’s biggest stars going at it in the opening few minutes of the movie is a big deal. And then David Chiang gets in on it? I can’t help but love seeing these martial heroes go toe-to-toe.
And later in the film, when David Chiang and Ti Lung face off again, in more extreme and contentious settings, it weaves together the threads of drama and action that the entire film has been spinning. It’s not exciting in a fun, “I can’t wait to revisit this” kind of way, it’s more of a “hold your breath and cringe” sort of tone. And I loved it. Pitting David Chiang and Ti Lung against each other will always excite me, but at the end of this heart-wrenching script, I almost didn’t want to see them clash. I felt too much for their characters to see them destroy one another. It’s brutal, yet surprisingly bloodless for Chang Cheh. It may put off fans expecting the usual bloodbath, but for this particular story holding back the blood helps to sell the drama much more than explosions of stomach blood and dismemberment would. Cuz I don’t know about you, but “explosions of stomach blood and dismemberment” generally make a Shaw film a fun romp for me.
The Blood Brothers is another Chang Cheh triumph. It stands apart from the general Shaw catalog as a film that could (probably) play well even for non-fans of the genre. And in terms of the sophistication of the choreography, I feel like I’ve reached the point in this chronological Shaw review series where the choreography is of a level of quality that just about any ol’ martial arts fan could watch the films without issue, provided they are OK with the age of the films.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the Chor Yuen film The Villains! See ya then!