The much-talked about and highly anticipated Chinese film of 2009 is “BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS”, a historical drama-action epic directed by Teddy Chen. The film has received such a large “hyping” up given its ensemble cast, fantastic production values ($ 150 million was spent to recreate Hong Kong’s 1906 Central district of the film), an interesting pseudo-historical marketing ploy and it has a Hollywood-scale blockbuster written all over it. The film has massive commercial appeal, and while I cannot say that the movie is the best film of the year, it has received numerous award nominations in the Hong Kong film awards.
In 1905, Dr. Sun Wen (also known as Sun Yat-sen) is arriving to Hong Kong (then a British colony at the time) to discuss his plans for revolution to overthrow the corrupt Qing Empire. Hong Kong has become a safe haven for political figures as Empress Dowager Cixi sends a group of assassins led by Xiaoguo Yan (Hu Jun) to kill Sun. With Sun’s arrival looming, things become chaotic in Hong Kong as revolutionary leader Chen (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is captured during a raid with several of his aides being murdered. A businessman named Li Yu-Tang (Wang Xueqi) declares his allegiance to the cause after a newspaper is closed by British authorities who maintains a policy of non-involvement with China’s political issues. Li rallies a group of men, made up of rickshaw drivers (Nick Tse), gamblers and former cops (Donnie Yen, IP MAN) and a beggar named Liu Yudai (Leon Lai) to serve as bodyguards for Sun when he arrives. Li’s son (Wang Bo Chieh) has volunteered to pose as Sun as a decoy to buy him time so that he can attend a meeting with the Hong Kong Tongmenghui safely. Will this group of rag-tag misfits be able to keep the assassins at bay and repel the attacks of the Qing assassins?
The film may disappoint those viewers who are expecting a lot of action since the film focuses more on drama and the story than actual action sequences. The first half of the film I primarily a set up to the film’s explosive climax, as the screenwriters and direction takes the audience into the lives of our main characters. The film does have several historical figures in the film, and while the film does provide us some background as to who they were, as to what their agendas were to go into battle. The film does flesh out its characters but I have to say several things about the supporting cast could’ve been edited out. I also found it interesting and quite surprising to find that for a Mainland China-produced film, the word “democracy” gets used quite a lot.
If the film had a key protagonist, it would be Li Yu-Tang since he appears to be the one man who appears to be in a position to lose a lot. The rest of the performances were pretty good, most specifically Tony Leung Ka-Fai and even Hu Jun who plays the general Xiaoguo. Leon Lai makes for a very bad ass character as the aristocrat turned beggar and NBA basketball player Mengke Bateer who plays the adorable yet intimidating “Stinky Tofu”. Nicholas Tse plays the rickshaw driver who has a heart of gold and while his character may not be significant, Tse manages to come out with a very convincing performance.
The big finale occurs in almost real time as director Teddy Chan Tak-Sum tries to connect action sequence after action sequence in one big hour-long action display. Every major to minor character gets to show their stuff as a contribution for the revolution. The action is pretty good and Donnie Yen even re-shot some of the action scenes. Now don’t get what I am about to say next to be a negative comment, I am not sure but I thought the highly choreographed action scenes appears to be diverting from the supposed ‘realism’ established in the first half of the film. Don’t get me wrong, the action is entertaining, intense and bloody; but I thought the excessive wire-fu and the occasional “emoting” by the use of close ups and slow-motion made the movie lose some of its footing somehow. Much as I thought the action left realism, Donnie Yen does take over with the fight scenes. Like him or not, you may think Yen has the capacity to over-react but the man can definitely exude the presence of a good fighter and bring forth an intended power of a fight scene.
I am not sure, I guess I was expecting more dramatic realism that supposedly sets up an epic-like quality in the hour-long action sequence. I suppose I wasn’t expecting a highly stylized fight scene that looked aimed at mainstream audiences. I guess despite its supposed historical ‘significance’, the film offers very little surprises. The one thing that proved rather stunning is the direction’s reliance to choreographed action scenes than to actual dramatization; yet it is more dramatic than a major action movie. Still, “Bodyguards and Assassins” is a highly commercial film that has massive appeal to both Eastern and Western audiences that would no doubt be able to pack movie theaters. After all, it is still fun to see Donnie Yen beat the heck out of baddies.
Recommended! [3 ½ Stars]
This Review is a Lunch.com Exclusive HYPE LEVEL: Extremely High. Great cast and stunning production values, with numerous film awards, the film has a huge intimidating "hype" in Asia.