Second sight: The Blood Brothers
The Blood Brothers
In our tabloid-obsessed culture, so many sensational slayings have been labelled "the crime of the century" only to be quickly forgotten that it is amazing how many homicides dating from the late 1800s still retain a mythical glow.
Qing dynasty warrior Ma Hsin-i's 1870 execution by "blood brother" Chang Wen-hsiang, for example, has been kept alive in films ranging from the 1929 silent swashbuckler Knight Chang Wen-hsiang to Peter Chan Ho-sun's epic The Warlords (2007). There have also been TV and stage productions, but it is The Blood Brothers (1973) that endowed the incident with celluloid immortality.
Director Chang Cheh was at the crest of his career as Shaw Brothers' maestro of martial arts when he retailored the Qing saga to suit his three most popular protégés: David Chiang Da-wei, Ti Lung and Chen Kuan-tai. Although the original case reverberated with political and religious currents relating to the Taiping Rebellion and other insurgencies, these were shorn from the screenplay to focus on the morality tale. Originally, Ma was murdered in revenge for the killing of a close pal whose wife was Ma's lover.
Not that this was a new angle, for it had been a vital part of the legend since the initial trial inspired operas and street performances as early as 1871. Chang built on these themes by incorporating a more nuanced viewpoint in which Ma (Ti Lung) and his lover (Ching Li) were soul mates and her husband, Huang Chung (Chen), a philanderer.
Giving the film an extra dimension, intended or not, is the homoerotic subtext peculiar to the director's works. Chang Wen-hsiang (Chiang) devotes his entire existence to his two blood brothers. Ma, too, prefers half-naked training sessions with Huang until he's introduced to the fellow's spouse. It doesn't take a PhD in psychology to see more raised flags than a phalanx of Qing soldiers, the undercurrents sublimated into a kung fu classic.
The Blood Brothers, Sat, 7pm, HK Film Archive, Dec 23, 1.30pm, Broadway Cinematheque. Part of the 100 Must-see Hong Kong Movies programme