The Blood Brothers (Chi ma, 1973)
118 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)
Review © 2003 Branislav L. SlantchevI have been watching one Shaw Brothers film every day for the last 10 days. I have either been lucky picking the DVDs from the shelf or these films totally rock. Still, even though I like them all, I have been less than overwhelmed by their story lines. The sets are marvelous, the actors are excellent, the music is usually superb, and the action sequences are matchless. The stories tend to be on the weak side, either because they are faithful adaptations of long and confusing novels, or because they are excuses to connect martial arts scenes. However, The Blood Brothers changes all that. Here's a film that not only pursues its martial arts with the usual gusto but actually has a good story to boot behind it. From the numerous collaborations of Chang Cheh and writer I Kuang, this must be among the best. It is certainly the best of the Shaw Brothers films I have seen so far.
|Not admiring the scenery||I'll say it again: Ti Lung is cool|
In the days of the Ching dynasty, the brothers Huang Chung (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Change Wen Hsiang (David Chiang) are small-time highway robbers who make their living by waylaying passers-by and helping them part from their cash. One day the passer-by happens to be Ma Hsin I (Ti Lung) whom they fail to defeat. Somewhat startlingly, he throws them a bag of money that Huang's wife Mi Lan (Ching Li) promptly takes and the three leave Ma to his own devices. Soon, however, he shows up at their doorstep and recruits the brothers to help him in his quest for fame, money, and power.
|Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, David Chiang||Mi Lan (Ching Li) realizes she loves Ma|
Pretty soon, the three friends/brothers find themselves in command of a small bandit army that Ma proceeds to train mercilessly day and night. The ambition to succeed in the government posts, even to become a Ching general, goads him into a relentless constant preparation. Mi Lan soon finds herself attracted to his doubtless charismatic and powerful persona and in spite of herself begins to long for his presence.
|Ma steadies Mi Lan's trembling hand||Mi Lan mortified by her emotions|
Following a brawl in the forest in which Ma rescues the somewhat dumb brothers from cops, Ma returns to the camp with a knife in his back. Mi Lan takes a less than sisterly interest in his wound and one day shows up to dress it by the pond where Ma is studying for the government exams. What follows is an absolutely beautiful scene that is masterfully executed by the director and acted out with utter conviction by the two actors.
|The doomed lovers||The fatal embrace|
As she tries to put some medicinal powder on the wound, Mi Lan's shaking hands spill the entire contents of the flask, and when Ma grabs her hand to steady it, an almost visible electric shock runs through Mi Lan's entire body. She pulls away and stumbles into the water. Ma leaps after her and carries her out. Soaking wet, they stare at each other, the sudden realization of their mutual attraction having stunned them. Ma, whose hands are also shaking in complete contrast to his usual self-possession, finally gathers the strength to pull Mi Lan closer and they embrace with fatal passion, sowing the seeds for the eventual destruction of the brotherly bonds that unite the three friends.
The two, however, do not succumb easily to more than a hug. Mi Lan is tormented by her betrayal of her husband, while Ma cannot stand to go behind Huang's back. The very same night Ma suddenly announces that he will leave months earlier than planned to take the exams. Mi Lan tries her best to steady herself but her emotions are plainly visible to anyone who cares to look. While her husband is oblivious, Chang notices her strange reaction to the news but attributes it to the strong wine.
|The three blood brothers||Chang during a military campaign|
Several years pass, during which Ma rises to become a successful Ching general. He has not forgotten his brothers and soon sends for them and the entire gang, which quickly transforms into a group of very dedicated soldiers. However, upon the brother's arrival in Ma's camp, Ma makes sure that Mi Lan does not come with them but instead has her sent away to Nanjing. He is clearly still in love with her, having remained single despite many marriage proposals. He knows that staying away from temptation is the only way to make sure he won't succumb to it. Mi Lan is herself devastated by he unwillingness to see her.
|Mi Lan pining for Ma...||...while her husband is whoring|
Huang and Chang quickly become Ma's trusted officers and help him achieve great honors and even higher posts by defeating with him countless bandit armies. They have everything they ever wanted: fame, power, and money. Ma continues to pursue his ever expanding dreams, and he is appointed governor of two provinces. However, one day he returns from a campaign together with Huang and Chang, and he sees Mi Lan. During one of the nights when Huang is out with Chang whoring at a local bordello, Mi Lan walks into Ma's study, where he is busy drawing an ink painting of the pond by which they had their brief embrace years ago.
With great trepidation, the two touch hands hesitatingly. Ma starts from his chair, knocking over objects from the desk. The two embrace, and Mi Lan's hairpin (a gift from her husband) falls to the floor, a bad omen. This night, they are unable to resist their love for each other anymore and their secret affair begins. Chang, who has already seen too many disturbing signs tries to get Huang to go home to his wife, but gets ignored by his womanizing brother. Chang goes alone only to find the hairpin on the floor. Full of suspicion he spends the night in front of Ma's room and in the morning sees Mi Lan emerging from there.
|The affair...||Huang killed by Ma Zhong Hsin (Tien Ching)|
The affair cannot continue forever in secret, and Ma faces a grave threat to his career if it ever becomes exposed. When Huang's unofficerly behavior begins to breed rumors as well, Ma decides to have him killed, solving both problems at once. He sends Huang on a fake mission along with his henchmen who are to assassinate him. By happenstance, Chang learns about the trip and immediately realizes the grave danger his brother is in. He intercepts the party and tries to warn Huang by telling him about the affair, but all is in vain as his rather simple brother refuses to believe him. They fight, and Huang leaves to his death.
|Chang prepares to ambush Ma||The mortally wounded Ma fights last duel|
Chang rushes back to plead Ma to rescind the order but to no avail. Everything that stands in Ma's way up must be destroyed. And so it does. To avenge his brother's death, Chang assassinates Ma himself. He gives himself up, is hauled to court, tortured, and sentenced to death himself. In the very last scene of the film, Ma's henchman (Tien Ching) executes Chang while Mi Lan watches on in tears.
|Chang and Ma in the duel to the death||Mi Lan alone remains|
The story (based on real events) is superb. It is about the bonds between brothers, the irresistible attraction between lovers, and the eternal conflict between duty and love. Mi Lan is the femme fatale whose passion destroy all three men she is associated with. Having made the wrong choice once by marrying the wrong guy, she makes a tragic choice next by betraying him for another. By our modern standards, this would not be an occasion to brand her a slut (well, maybe some still would, but it's not that simple). There is no correct answer to the dilemma she is facing except perhaps that she should not have gone about the affair in secret. On the other hand, who knows how difficult divorce would have been, and at any rate Ma's reputation would have been tarnished anyway.
Ma, on the other hand, is the clear villain but not because he gives in to his love but because he does so behind his friend's back. A man like Ma should have been able to do this properly, perhaps losing the association with both his friends and Mi Lan in the process. Having hapless Huang killed was the cowardly way out, for which he rightly paid with his own life.
Huang is too simple a brute and cares little about his wife, which makes him less than likeable. Chang, on the other hand, emerges as the real hero of the story. He tries to hint to his brother about potential trouble, keeps his mouth shut, and then risks everything to save Huang. When that fails, he gives up his life to avenge his wrongful death. The final scene of his painful execution is extremely poignant: the one person deserving admiration is strung and butchered by cowards who sneer at him as he expires.
There are some minor weaknesses in the direction that betray the film's origins in the 1970s. There is excessive zooming for dramatic effect that never looks good and becomes particularly annoying very fast. Also, Chang Cheh displays inexplicable fondness for rolling bodies down hills. Almost every time someone gets killed, his body rolls down, sometimes in loving slow motion. The deaths of Ma and Huang are also in slow motion, perhaps for added impact. Despite these minor annoyances, the director has achieved an admirable blend of action, drama, and romance. With spectacular outdoor scenes, elaborate sets, and excellent acting, The Blood Brothers should be a pleasure to see for every fan of these films.
The DVD from Celestial Pictures has a non-anamorphic widescreen picture in the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is solid, with stable colors, and only brief bleed-throughs here and there. For some reason the layer-change pause was longer than usual but it does not appear at a distracting place. Only the Mandarin soundtrack is available, remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1. The white English subtitles are bright and mostly error-free. The extras include the usual suspects: photo gallery, trailers, and talent files on the four leads and the director. There are also interviews with Ching Li and David Chiang, both subtitled and mildly entertaining. The DVD is an excellent purchase for $10.
June 18, 2003