Monday, 19 August 2013


Bodyguards and Assassins brings together an all-star cast for a retelling of significant events in modern Chinese history. Westerners might not be familiar with it but that’s not really a problem, the assassination attempt on Sun Yat-sen's life in 1906 is given lots of room to breathe. Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Nicholas Tse and NBA basketball player Mengke Bateer are just some of the big names along for the ride. Hu Jun plays the leader of the Qing assassins, while Eric Tsang, Simon Yam and Fan Bingbing take supporting roles. We shouldn’t forget Zhang Hanyu, Jacky Cheung and Michelle Reis, who all make cameo appearances. Hong Kong films don’t get much bigger than this.

Exiled Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen is returning to the British colony to meet with alliance leaders about upcoming plans of insurrection against the Qing imperial government. That reads like the opening crawl of Star Wars: Episode One. In China, the Qing send out official Xiao Guo (Hu Jun) to spearhead Sun's assassination. In Hong Kong, activist Xiao Bai (Tony Leung) and businessman Li (Wang Xueqi) gather bodyguards to protect Sun. The basic premise is relatively straightforward enough, and Teddy Chan spends the best part of an hour introducing us to his characters.

It’s the – seemingly – less significant characters that make the biggest impact. Crooked cop Chung Yang (Donnie Yen), rickshaw driver Ah Shi (Nicholas Tse), beggar Lau (Leon Lai), Shaolin monk Stinky Tofu (Mengke Bateer), and Li's son Chung Guang (Wang Bo Chieh) add depth to the multi-layered drama before laying down their lives for a common cause. That would be the Tung Wai-choreographed action finale then, which practically plays out in real time on a lavish set that recreates early 1900s Hong Kong Central District.

If you’re tuning in for Donnie Yen then be warned, the worlds coolest action star doesn’t actually get to kick anybody for at least seventy minutes. He has a small but significant role, and for the best part of an hour the cast are asked to act first, kick ass later. It’s the attention to character that separates Bodyguards and Assassins from the chasing pack, be very clear on this point. Teddy Chan’s latest is a period drama first, action spectacle second. Approach the film from this angle and you’ll have a lot more fun.

Nicholas Tse stands out as the simple-minded rickshaw driver Ah Shi. It’s also hard to ignore the hulking frame of basketball star Mengke Bateer. I was hoping to see him kick some serious ass in the films final act, and while his story arc does offer up a fine line in heroic bloodshed, I think perhaps I was asking too much. Maybe I’ve been watching too many Bruce Lee pictures of late. The big pay off – basically a forty-minute chase sequence – is well worth the wait, but not for the reasons you might expect. The action sequences are handled well enough, and yes, Donnie does get to cut loose on the carnage, but it’s the attention to detail that holds your attention throughout.

The Central District set is stunning, and all the more beautiful as we watch it crumble under a hail of bullets, bodies and bloody warfare. Teddy Chan does well to connect the vast array of characters, though he loses points for over-egging the sentimentality. Having said that, this is commercial Hong Kong cinema, where would we be without a little emotional blackmail? Besides, Teddy Chan should be commended for seamlessly blending period drama with obligatory action excess. You might be tempted to compare the film to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man, but the two movies approach similar themes in different ways. One film takes the action drama route, the other works in reverse but with equal success.

It’s certainly not perfect cinema, and doesn’t fully connect in either guise, but there’s plenty to enjoy when all is said and done. Not the Donnie Yen picture you may have been expecting, but a worthwhile venture all the same. Bodyguards and Assassins is an entertaining change of pace, blessed with beautiful cinematography and a rousing finale. You might even learn a little something along the way. AW

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