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July 28, 2011

Bodyguards and Assassins

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Shi yue wei cheng
Teddy Chan - 2009
Indomina Releasing Region 1 DVD

Finally making its way as a stateside DVD is Teddy Chan's labor of love. Ten years of preparations and false starts culminated in wins for Chan and his film for the 2010 Hong Kong Film Awards. It's a good film, definitely, although I think John Woo's Red Cliff II was the better of the competition. The film is being sold for western audiences primarily for the martial arts angle, and the film is one of the wave of films that both features the resurgence of Donnie Yen as the prime Chinese language action star of the past couple of years, and of Chinese language action films steeped in recreating historical events.

The film takes place over the course of four days in Hong Kong in 1906. Sun Yat-sen, taking refuge in Japan, has come to Hong Kong to meet with several fellow revolutionaries. As Hong Kong was a British colony at the time, this was not considered part of imperial China, where Sun was considered an outlaw. The assassins, employed by the Emperor, are in Hong Kong to kill Sun, while the bodyguards, a disorganized assortment of students, workers, and others interested in bringing democracy to China attempt to protect Sun during his visit of several hours.

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The bodyguards actually supply an elaborate decoy, traveling the streets of central Hong Kong, while Sun is having a meeting. The film is about those involved on both sides, with the fateful day providing a long action sequence. Most of the film centers on a newspaper publisher who quietly helps fund Sun although he attempts to officially keep his distance. Circumstances bring both him and his son into the action. The mistress of the publisher is the former wife of a small time gambler who acts as an informer for the assassins. Those involved do so out of either idealism or personal motivation, or a combination of reasons.

As the film was made in Shanhai, and employs a cast and crew from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, comparisons with the dreams of China in 1906 and the present day reality are unavoidable. Chan doesn't address these disparities directly, letting the viewer draw their own conclusions. Putting political and philosophical questions aside, the film is impressive for the huge city street set where most of the action takes place, with hundreds of extras milling crowded streets.

While Donnie Yen is the nominal star, the film is more of ensemble piece, with better known actors such as Simon Yam, Leon Lai and the almost ubiquitous Eric Tsang providing supporting performances. The film is stolen be two newcomers, Li Yuchun as the teenage daughter of Yam, who takes to fighting the assassins to avenge her father, and the almost seven foot tall former NBA player, Mengke Bateer, playing a street vendor whose height and strength provide most of the comic relief for the film. Li, at least in this film, isn't obviously pretty, going through the film wearing an aviator's cap, but the combination of her attitude and youth are reminiscent of when Zhang Ziyi was "discovered" by audiences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Pretty in a more conventional way is Zhou Yun as the daughter of a photographer. The object of infatuation by a household servant played by Nicholas Tse, the courtship between the two, while having little direct bearing on a main narrative is one of the most affecting parts of the film. Tse, a Cantopop star, has a large facial scar, making his character appear less desirable due to both class and physical appearance. Zhou, seen sitting in the previous shots, gets up to reveal an obvious limp. It's a nice scene of love of two people looking beyond the kinds of barriers that might one from refusing the other.

Although most of Bodyguards and Assassins is classical filmmaking in the best sense, Chan does allow for some visual play. The opening titles are made of abstract images, wrought iron railings and staircases superimposed on each other. Near the end, when Leon Lai pursues the lead assassin with his glasses off, there are several out of focus point of view shots. Chan also has an unexpected version of the "Odessa Steps" sequence from Eisenstein's Potemkin. For sheer visceral impact, the moment to watch with the biggest bang is Donnie Yen running towards a galloping horse.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 28, 2011 08:04 AM