Bodyguards and Assassins (2009, Teddy Chen)
Historical epics are plenty of fun when done right. The ones that earn special praise from this movie admirer are those which make successful use of a major historical event to tell a smaller, more intimate tale. The task is not a simple one, for a fine balancing act must be performed between what is typically the fictional take of the central protagonists and the very important backdrop that is the historical event. What is the significance of the heroes’ link to the major event? The tighter the link, the richer the drama, says I. Teddy Chen’s 2009 martial arts-socio-political historical drama Bodyguards and Assassins offers as tight a link as can be.
Set in 1905, Teddy Chen’s film expansive (and expensive looking) epic has a series a fictional and historical figures interact with one another. Still a British Colony, Hong Kong is about to receive the visit of a very important man, Sun Yat-Sen, a political revolutionary who wishes to see the overthrow of the archaic Qing Dynasty which still rules China. Upon debarking from his ship, Sun must traverse the dangerous streets of Hong Kong to reach the location of a secret meeting where he intends to reveal plans for a series of uprisings across the mainland. An army of assassins has been sent to liquidate him before such a meeting can occur, but he can count a grand host of allies based in Hong Kong, among them Chen Xiao-bai (Tony Leung Ka Fai), editor of a newspaper, Li Yue-tang (Xueqi Wang), an entrepreneur who funds the revolutionary forces in Hong Kong, and Fang Tian (Simon Yam), a former general who now leads a theatre troop.These are but the three more prominent figures among the revolutionaries however. The film has an astonishing amount of characters and big name actors (big names if you know your Chinese and Hong Kong cinema) who all help protect Sun on his way to the meeting.
Bodyguards and Assassins builds its momentum in a way that feels just right. It begins by carefully and deliberately setting the stakes, not only of the ramifications the upcoming meeting may lead to provided it even occurs, but also for each of the characters who, for one reason or another, feel they must play their part in insuring Sun’s safety. Some do it strictly for political reasons, other do it for honour, while others still, such as Donnie Yen’s character, a policeman whose gambling habits destroyed his marriage some time ago, do it for family-related reasons. Essentially, the first hour of the movie is all about the characters, where they come from and why they are where they are, as well as developing their motivations for participating in the mission. Admittedly, the pacing of the opening 20 minutes or so are difficult to embrace for the mere fact that a great many people are being introduced. Not to mention that as someone who did not study modern Chinese history, I was unsure as to who was a fictional character, who was real and which of these 15 different people or so were going to matter in the end. However, the film never lets go of anyone’ storyline, even though no character receives an especially large amount of screen time (granted, the overall plot does concentrate a bit more on some rather than others). Director Teddy Chen performs a solid enough juggling act for each character’s weight to have the necessary impact. Perfection it is not, but the viewer’s interest does increase as the first half of the film evolves and the day of the mission approaches. Personally, I was a tad bit disappointed to see Leon Lai, who plays a beggar with a broken heart, get not only the least amount of screen time among the cast but also the least interest part. As was the case with another film we reviewed just last week, The Wild Bunch, someone from this all star cast was inevitably going to bite some dust. It should be noted that almost everyone involved gives solid to great performances, with the standouts being Xuequi Wang, Tony Leung Ka Fai and Nicholas Tse, who plays the rickshaw boy that drives Li Yue-tang around town.
The tone and pace of the film shifts dramatically once Sun Yat-Sen sets foot on Hong Kong soil. From that point onwards, with all the players ready to take action wherever they may be in waiting, Bodyguards and Assassins ups the ante, sending the thrills into a crescendo of emotional wallops and acrobatic fight sequences. As in the first section, not everything lands. Hong Kong cinema frequently goes for especially emotional punches in attempts to be as broadly pleasing as possible with the masses. Call it emotional sweep if you will. This is arguably one of those rare times when, despite a few hiccups, it works for the most part. Part of the film’s success in that department rests with the fact that the story is deeply rooted in a historically important moment in modern Chinese history, one that saw the closing of one era and the beginning of another. Democracy, freedom, equal rights, Hong Kong independence from British colonial rule, these are some of the grand, admirable and very, very important ideals at stake. The history books reveal what eventually transpired following the end of the Qing dynasty, but Bodyguards and Assassins, as least of a capsule of a brief and tumultuous chapter of China’s story, is fascinating.
It is next to impossible to watch this movie and not notice the décor which surrounds the actors. Some of the panoramic shots that float over the city streets feature a degree of computer generated imagery, but for the most part, the 1905 Hong Kong the viewer is invited to discover was reproduced on a set. The effort invested into the planning and construction of the sets is stunning to say the least. In one of the blu-ray’s bonus featurettes, acclaimed directors the likes of Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry are seen visiting the set and look either jealous or as though they are about to cry. Movie sets, real big movie sets, have always held a special place in the author’s heart. Yes, they are artificial, but they also represent ingenuity and serve the purpose of allowing the actors, and by extension the characters, to live in a world we the viewers can understand because it is life-like. With sets, the possibilities seem limitless because they can be put together any way the director so desires. In the case of Bodyguards and Assassins, the look and feel of an older Hong Kong are vividly brought to life. It is like the apartment set used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but multiplied by ten.
Any film featuring stars such as Donnie Yen and Leon Lai is going to have some no holds barred action. Without going into specifics (this review would really go on for a long time if we ironed out all the nitty gritty details there are to Bodyguards and Assassins), Teddy Chen and his crew live up to expectations in this department. The quality of the action goes beyond even the martial arts on display, which alone is impressive and awe inspiring. The thought put into the individual set pieces is really cool too. Take for example an early scene which has some Qing assassins perform and assault on Siman Yam’s theatre. The attackers do not merely crash through the ceiling and descend on their targets, they crash through the ceiling and descend on their target while throwing acid onto them. It is a wicked, one that serves a tactical advantage for the characters performing the attack and also warns the audience that the movie is not going to hold back from showing some intense violence.
Movies as big as Bodyguards and Assassins rarely reach perfection. Occasionally the sweep will go a bit too far, a few situations and their resolutions can feel somewhat contrived, and not every cast member is given equally interesting things to do, but as a whole the movie is a large success. Generally speaking I enjoy Hong Kong action cinema, so I therefore expected, to a degree, to like this movie but by the end it had surpassed my expectations, which is always a nice thing especially when the expectations were already a bit high to begin with.