Film Review: Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield

Ming Dynasty imperial guards investigate a murder that leads to the emperor in a tense, vivid period wuxia drama.
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A prequel to 2014's Brotherhood of Blades, The Infernal Battlefield backtracks to explain how Shen Lian became such a fearsome imperial guard. This follow-up expands the scope of the original movie while continuing to deliver all the action and intrigue wuxia fans want. It's a dense, sometimes confusing, but expertly made work that spreads into several genres while respecting wuxia traditions.

The prequel opens with Shen Lian (played by the excellent Chen Chang) regaining consciousness in a corpse-strewn field just in time to save the life of Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi). Eight years later in Beijing, Shen is an imperial guard under the protection of Lu. Loathed by civilians, imperial guards are notorious for taking bribes to fix crimes.

But Shen is different. Looking into a restaurant murder, he finds clues that the victim was assassinated for his connection to the emperor's court. With several factions jockeying to succeed the ill emperor, Shen has no way of knowing whom to trust.

Director and co-writer Lu Yang (who also directed the first movie) captures the political intrigue with quick, sure strokes. The wrong answer to a simple question during a meal can lead to imprisonment or death. Even poetry and paintings are suspect. Shen's fondness for drawings by Bei Zhai (the ethereal Yang Mi) implicates him in a rebel conspiracy.

Blackmailed into destroying the imperial archives (filled with dangerous testimony and records), Shen finds clues there about attempts on the emperor's life. But each step he takes ties him closer to the rebels. Rival guard Pei Lun's (Lei Jiayin) detective work threatens to pin several killings on Shen. Even Lu, in the midst of his own intrigue with shifty court rulers, can no longer protect his friend.

With its expanding cast and shifting allegiances, The Infernal Battlefield can be hard to follow. It helps that Lu Yang has fashioned such strong characters. A smart detective, Pei Lun employs humor to trap suspects, while Bei Zhai uses her beauty and helplessness to mask an iron will. The scowling, skeptical Shen Lian is a riveting antihero, determined to be true to his own compass. Trying to clear his own name but reluctant to hurt his friends, Shen also faces constant attack from rebels and guards alike. The fact that he has committed some pretty nasty crimes on his own adds to the movie's moral complexities.

The action in The Infernal Battlefield is taut and vicious, and also intrinsic to the story. Unlike most wuxia movies, the fights here fit seamlessly into the narrative, advancing rather than delaying the plot. The Infernal Battlefield is a pretty obvious political allegory, a melancholy romance, a crackling detective story, and a strong setup for the next film in the series. It's also a great showcase for Chen Chang, as charismatic a star as anyone could want, especially decked out in a black leather uniform and wielding an Imperial Brocade Blade.

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