Editor, U.S.; Los Angeles, California (@filmbenjamin)
[Our thanks to Aaron Krasnov for the following review. Bodyguards and Assassins screens once more this coming afternoon, at 1:00 at the Walter Reade theater. Click here to buy tickets! ]

Bodyguards and Assassins is a long winded, melodramatic period epic eulogizing a small group of warriors who selflessly give their lives to the perceived cause of revolution. Set in Britain occupied Hong Kong during 1905, the film tells the fictitious tale of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's arrival in hopes of uniting mainland China in revolution against the Qing Dynasty. Sadly, the politics never get deeper than surface level and Sun Yat-sen's cause is quietly glanced over as the need to bring democracy to China, uniting it under a government by the people, seriously, that's all we get. 

The story's central conceit is quite smart; a major historical figure travels to a bustling city where an attempt will be made on his life. Revolutionaries within the city must quickly assemble over a few days to devise a scheme allowing the historical figure to conduct his business and leave the city unharmed. The events laid out to show the sacrifice of a few, to protect one, who may save millions; the violence and death taking place behind the party leader's back, never to be known. The would be faceless bodyguards idealized in their heroic sacrifice.

Taking place over the 4 days leading up the arrival of Sun Yat-sen, the first half of the film introduces the cast of characters who will ultimately end up protecting the revolution. The primary emotional arc belongs to two revolutionaries, Li Yutang and Chen Shaobai, one an outspoken newspaper editor who uses his paper to spread revolutionary sentiment, the other a soft-spoken business man who quietly funds the paper and its political cause behind the public eye; together they form a happy foil whose split will start the second act in motion. Joined in business and in family, Chen Shaobai acts as mentor and occasional teacher to Li Yutang's only son, Li Chongguang. Chongguang is an intelligent child, with a mind for the political and an urge to join Sun Yat-sen's revolution, naturally his father forcefully decrees he never join the movement. Shaobai as the driving force behind the protection of Sun Yat-sen must begin to gather a group of bodyguards, but before this happens a meaningful speech is directed at Li Yutang urging him to understand that by funding the revolution he is part of the revolution and one day he will have to step out from behind the curtain and support the cause, lots of foreshadowing going on.

By this point Hong Kong knows of the impending arrival of Sun Yat-sen, the British government has chosen to let the problem sort itself out, a band of Qing assassins are preparing for his arrival and the revolutionaries are in search of bodyguards....time for some impending danger. Chen Shaobai arranges for a group, lead by an exiled general and his men, to protect Sun Yat-sen when he arrives in 2 days, BUT WAIT this is too convenient, so out out of nowhere a Qing scouting party arrives, kidnaps Shaobai and dismantles the general and his men. All except for a young female whose father, the general, in an act of bravery knocks her out, puts her in a burlap sack and tosses her from a window. Saved, and with enough motivation to become one of the eventual bodyguards the daughter slinks off. Shaobai, kidnapped by the evil Qing and held by a former student must bide his time patiently and hope that Yutang will gather the courage to continue the cause.

With Shaobai locked away Yutang quickly comes around, hastily recruiting bodyguards, but Yutang doesn't know any generals, so he recruits a group of motley side characters i have failed to mention up to this point, with purpose. This group will eventually form the cabinet of bodyguards that must sacrifice themselves so Sun Yat-sen may live and continue the revolution. You would think this group of characters are loyal revolutionaries or at least have some sort of emotional investment in the revolution, you would think this and you would be wrong.

Let's start with Donnie Yen, who has the most complex character arc of the bodyguards. Yen begins the film as a corrupt police official who will do anything for money to fund his gambling habit. He runs errands for the Qing and stalks one of Li Yutang's mistresses. It eventually becomes apparent that Yutang's mistress and Yen have a history, and a child, whom Yutang cares for. The mistress implores Yen to help protect Sun Yat-sen if only for his child's sake and just like that we have a bodyguard, and one who doesn't really have any interest in the revolution, but he wants to protect his child, which is chivalrous. 

Next up is half of the film's comic relief, a giant (6'11") Shaolin monk, jocularly referred to as Stinky Tofu. Stinky Tofu quietly cooks tofu on the side of the road and tends to his plants, a happy existence until one day Yutang stumbles upon his rickshaw driver, A'si, provoking and ultimately getting manhandled by the giant. Boy you can fight! exclaims Yutang as he politely requests Stinky's help in the upcoming fight. Stinky Tofu, despite never having been told the cause will help out because he believes Yutang a man of valor. Revolution, what revolution...

A'si the bumbling rickshaw driver and other half of the comedic duo has longed to be more than a servant. He makes strides towards literacy and eventually becomes engaged, but still wants to prove himself, which he can only do by supporting his boss in protecting Sun Yat-sen. 

Lastly we have a vagrant, a once noble man of standing, cast out of affluence through an unsolicited love of his father's bride. Yutang brings the vagrant a valuable family heirloom, an iron fan, telling him to clean his shit up as it's time to fight. Bam, recruited, the vagrant still yearns for his love but Yutang tells him that he needs to get over it and man don't you realize you can't sleep with your father's wife, you were asking for it. 

I realize I am running a bit long, but I wanted to make sure the back-stories of the bodyguards were explained so that when we get to the gratuitous slow-mo death sequences overlaid with eulogizing text and accompanied by mournful weeping string overtures the maudlin nature would be apparent.

OK protect the architect of national democracy time! 

The plan is we take one of the newspaper workers and have them act as a dummy Sun Yat-sen. The dummy will leave the meeting place while the real Dr. stays inside and plans the upcoming revolution. Now to do this we are going to draw straws, everyone take a straw and whoever has the short one raise their hand....anyone?... someone has to have the short straw...you, in the back... oh fuck me! Li Chongguang, master Yutang's son, what are you doing here....oh no!! and you drew the short straw! we can't have this, alright, everyone, do-over...........wait, no do-overs? OK but your father isn't going to like this. Contrivances and Melodrama converge!

The film manages to cover all of the above exposition in roughly 80 minutes or so thanks to having no political agenda, providing little historical context, creating a faceless ancillary populous and generally rushing through most everything but that's alright it's action time!

Once the Doctor steps off the boat the film opts for a near real time pace as Sun Yat-sen's visit takes a little less than an hour. 

As soon as the good Doctor gets into the rickshaw it's off to the races through the crowded streets of Hong Kong. Within 5 minutes ninjas drop from the sky amidst parading civilians while fireworks and smoke bombs go off all around. This sequence is a great deal of fun, the action is quick paced, the set pieces over the top and the bodyguard's martial arts entertaining, sadly it ends with the start of  the death moguls, little emotional humps of valorous death that must be traversed quickly and in succession. Each preceded by a battle in which the orchestra queues up a good couple minutes early and emulates the scene at the end of The Last Samurai where all of the horses get mowed down by a Gatling gun in slow motion while Hans Zimmer cries sweet, sappy, musical tears, it's that heavy handed nonsense over and over, for each of the bodyguards, the film is about sacrifice, remember?

The action, while occasionally a good time, generally plays out using lots of quick cuts and realm-of-the-unreal wire-fu escapes. The part that isn't fun goes as follows: Bodyguard standing proud facing his enemies, music builds and the fight begins, a couple quick punches and hey look over there, wait what happened, oh he's dead, hold up what's going on, ah there's my wide shot, wait back to the up close whip crack what the fuck, bodies on the ground, and  the fight is ending because the strings started so let's cut to Chongguang looking scared or Yutang looking apprehensive and back to the strings which start 5 minutes too early every time, a couple more punches and OK mawkish strings do your thing, obituary and on to the next. 

I'm not condemning the action, there is a scene where Donnie Yen and a horse do something so awesome I will never be able to forget it. The problem stuffed right in there with the awesome is the lack of meaningful confrontation. There is a multi-stage fight between the lead assassin and the remaining bodyguards, but as with everything else we have to sit through the slow-mo eulogies of every downed hero, there's a reason for that though right? They are fighting for something, revolution and the hope of millions, their deaths are meaningful. Yes, because of their heroic efforts Sun Yat-sen has his meeting and goes on to uproot the Qing Dynasty but these people aren't fighting for the revolution. Donnie Yen is fighting for his daughter, the vagrant for his honor, the monk because why the fuck not, the general's daughter for revenge and the rickshaw driver to become a man (forget that new fiancée) and when each dies we see that dream disappearing in front of their eyes, not the revolution. So when Sun Yat-sen escapes Hong Kong unscathed and we stare into his unknowing eyes, oblivious to all the sacrifice around him, it's hard to care.   

See this film for Donnie Yen and the horse, see it expecting all of the schmaltz but enjoy it for shit like Donnie Yen breaking out some unnecessary parkour and earning style points for back-flips and wall-runs while a rampaging assassin chases him through the streets.

Bodyguards and Assassins

  • Teddy Chan
  • Junli Guo
  • Tin Nam Chun
  • Joyce Chan
  • Tung Man Chan (concept)
  • James Yuen
  • Bing Wu
  • Xueqi Wang
  • Tony Ka Fai Leung
  • Jun Hu
  • Bo-Chieh Wang
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Teddy ChanJunli GuoTin Nam ChunJoyce ChanTung Man ChanJames YuenBing WuXueqi WangTony Ka Fai LeungJun HuBo-Chieh WangActionDramaHistory

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