Blood Brothers (1973)
Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kuan Tai, and Ching Li

The Plot: In the opening of our film, Chan Wen Hsian (David Chiang) is arrested for the murder of Ma Hsing I (Ti Lung), a very famous and respected general. When placed on trial, Chan tells the court his side of the story and why everything happened the way that it did. His story starts roughly a decade in the past, when Chan Wen Hsian was partnered with his close friend Huang Chung (Chen Kuan Tai), when the two men made it a habit to rob any travelers that they could find on the road. When they come across a younger version of Ma Hsing I, the duo find a very powerful adversary. Ma Hsing I and Huang Chung start to battle it out along the side of the road, but when their fight comes to a draw, Ma hands over his money out of respect and everyone sets off on their respective ways. Later, Ma Hsing I shows up at the home of Huang Chung and Chan Wen Hsian and he proposes an offer to the duo. If he were to join him and his faction, they could become one of the most powerful military units in the world. With the promise of money in their future, this trio set off to take over several small outposts in an attempt to strengthen their numbers. With their power growing, Ma Hsing I’s ego begins to grow along with it. His eyes eventually wander to Huang Chung’s wife, and the two begin having an affair that they try to keep quiet. This tumultuous love triangle, without spoiling anything, is bound to drive these blood brothers apart.

The Review
Although I have reviewed numerous Chang Cheh titles on this website in the past, and I am a huge fan of the director, it seems that David Chiang’s work with this famed filmmaker has been relatively absent from the martial arts coverage we have had here on Varied Celluloid. It comes down to a luck-of-the-draw type of situation, because I can promise that his filmography has not been purposefully overlooked. This actor is a huge part of my fandom, but for some reason the Shaw titles I reach for when reviewing rarely seem to star him. He has popped up every now and then, but I suppose my affection for the Venom Clan (stars of Five Deadly Venoms) shows up in the films that I ultimately choose. As fantastic as Chang Cheh’s work with the Venom Clan was, he is almost just as well known for his work with Ti Lung and David Chiang. These two actors were featured together in more than thirty films, and the ratio of good-films-to-bad-films has proven to be surprisingly stacked. Blood Brothers is another masculine film from director Chang Cheh, and it perfectly encapsulates the heroic bond that his favorite duo were capable of expressing. This time, however, that brotherhood is shattered by outside forces, and Chang Cheh delivers a different style of morality tale.

The first thing that the movie does to deliver its story in a unique fashion is give away the ending of the movie, and it does this right at the start of the film. We know that this story will focus on David Chiang and Ti Lung because of the poster art, but before either man is able to grace the screen, we are given a text scroll that tells us about the logistics of the story that this movie is actually based upon. Right up front, the movie tells us that David Chiang will ultimately kill Ti Lung’s character. The next thing the audience actually sees is David Chiang chained up and under arrest. What follows throughout the duration of the movie is a slightly Rashomon-esque retelling of the events that surrounded the death of Ti Lung’s character. He takes the audience back to the distant past in order to tell us just why he had to kill Ti Lung’s character. Ultimately, the following story is developed very well, but it doesn’t dampen the shock of discovering the ending of our movie within only the first few minutes.

Honestly, you can’t beat the cast that is assembled here. Although the film doesn’t feature a wide array of popular Shaw villains, it does have three of their very best stars in the lead. Each man stands out as a very different type of martial arts leading man. Chen Kuan Tai, the sometimes dastardly villain, has always had a dark side to him that manages to stand out in opposition to our other leads. His plays the rebellious and brash young man to perfection. His arrogance shines through in this standout performance. David Chiang has always had a boy-next-door look to him, and to me he has rarely seemed to have a ferocious streak. In this role he plays everything completely straight, and he could possibly be considered a bit dull in comparison to the other characters. Whereas Ti Lung manages to stand out a bit more with his role. For the most part, Ti Lung was often shown as one of the the most stoic and respectable leading men the martial arts film world. He could be likened to a kung fu version of John Wayne or maybe Gary Cooper. He could give credence to a project by only appearing in front of the camera. Yet, in this film he has a slightly darker side to him. Ruthlessly ambitious, but still somehow respectable, Ti Lung somehow takes a bland villain and turns him into a three dimensional character. Not an easy thing to do in the context of a kung fu film.

The scope of Blood Brothers is absolutely ridiculous for a Shaw title. Being that the film is based upon a certain level of reality, it seems that the Shaw studio saw this as a story deserving of their full financial support. Not only does the movie break the sacred ninety minute mark, nearly going a full two hours (not a huge accomplishment from this era, but it is longer than average), but the mammoth size of the action sequences in the film are rarely paralleled in the realm of oldschool action titles. There are sequences within Blood Brothers where the long lines of extras, who represent Ma Hsing I’s army, go on further than the camera can even capture (see for yourself in one of the screenshots above). Normally, when it comes to classic martial arts cinema, I am a proponent of “get it however you can,” but in the case of Blood Brothers – audiences owe it to the film to see it via the beautifully restored Celestial print. Such a vast film would lose so much of its scope without its vibrant coloring and widescreen composition.

The Conclusion
The movie does get a little bloated during the third act, I must confess. After it is revealed that Chen Kuan Tai is to be killed by Ti Lung, there’s really not a lot of other places for the movie to go. So, everything seems as if it drags out afterward. Even the sequence where David Chiang is tortured, and ultimately found guilty of murder, seems longer than it should have been. The buildup doesn’t seem to work for the movie. Braveheart this is not, and his martyrdom doesn’t seem to have the “oomph” that the film probably should have developed along the way. Still, despite the imperfections, this is a very entertaining and grandiose Shaw Bros. action epic. Ultimately, I give it a solid recommendation and my rating is that of a four out of five. The third act makes it teeter on the verge of a three, but I think this one should keep audiences entertained.