NYAFF 2010: BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS Review
For much of its first hour I would hesitate to call Teddy Chen's Bodyguards and Assassin a movie. There are actors on the screen performing actions reciting the script's dialog, but at no point in the first half of this overlong mess did I feel like I was actually watching a movie with characters, progression, stakes, or any investment for me, the viewer. Instead, I felt as though I was watching the most boring kind of propaganda occupied by a series of talking points about a war long-since fought, decrying the abuses of a system that was only replaced later by a repressive regime not necessarily of and for the people. The whole picture - but especially the first half - feels congratulatory in an especially unearned way, elevating the revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat Sen to (Sun Wen) to a nearly legendary level in spite of avoiding the tricky business of relaying to the viewer why he was so important and inspirational to the people of China.
The story follows a motley crew of characters as they prepare for a particularly incendiary visit from the doctor, who's returning to Hong Kong from exile to meet with revolutionary leaders from the mainland. The bulk of the movie follows the cast as they plan a defense from Qing Imperial forces that seek to assassinate the rebel leader before he can get off the island. The structure of the film's first half focuses mostly on Li Yutang (Wang Xueqi), owner of a printing press and respected businessman who gradually finds himself drawn into the revolutionary fervor as both British and Imperial Chinese forces begin trampling the locals and aiming their forces at a man he's never met.
The movie is effectively Li Yutang's story and I suppose you could say it's about the costs and consequences of rebelling against the Imperial and colonial systems. At the same time, there's something under-explored about the impact of the movie's events on Li Yutang's life as well as the inherent paradox of being a local "boss" party to the benefits of being at the top of the city food chain while imploring others to break free of the old systems. Xueqi wears the role as well as can be, although it mostly calls for looking noble and seeming forlorn, and later, running around in action to which he should not be a party.
The rest of the cast is filled with characters whose motivations are silly (a disgraced giant and monk who just wants to join the cause), to underdeveloped (a corrupt cop played by Donnie Yen who wants to earn the respect of the daughter he's only just become aware of). It's like this in a lot of ways with the first, dramatic, non-action half of the movie, occupied with its characters laying out talking points for the revolution ("government for the people") without existing as living, breathing characters we as viewers would be interested in following. And it's so joyless and humorless for large portions of its running time. The later fantastic martial arts of the second half don't really occupy the world of the first - the fights are energetic and imaginative and reflect a break from reality. This doesn't jibe with what appears to want to be a serious historical fiction.
As for the action - I actually like the idea that the second half plays out more or less in real time, with the assembled cast of bodyguards doing what they can to protect Dr. Sen from the assassins. There are some clever setpieces and the action is generally brutal, tense, and most importantly, easy to follow. But it feels like it exists from an entirely different movie from the first half.
It's unfortunate, really - because of the historical elements and thematic drive of the first half had somehow been able to reconcile themselves with the wild action and spirit of the second half, the film may really have been onto something.
Charles is a freelance writer and game designer. Check out his blog, Monster In Your Veins.
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