As heroic as bloodshed gets ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, December 26, 2009

As heroic as bloodshed gets

Bodyguards and Assassins
My rating:

I feel like I ought to watch more Hong Kong and Chinese films. Reviews of Hollywood movies are a dime a dozen on the internet, but good reviews - in English - of Asian films are rarer, and likely to earn my humble blog a few precious more hits from other countries. (I highly doubt they'd be interested in Malay movies.) But English is, for all intents and purposes, my first language, and therefore I'm much more inclined to catch an English movie than a Chinese-language one. Which is why I rely so much on LoveHKFilm, one of my favourite sites, to recommend me the good ones. I'm only watching Bodyguards and Assassins because of their favourable review of it.

And they were right.

It is 1906, and the dawn of revolution in China. Sun Yat-sen is planning a visit to Hong Kong to unite several rebel groups, but his arrival is heralded by an army of Qing assassins led by Yan Xiao-Guo (Hu Jun). Before revolutionary newspaperman Chen Xiao-Bai (Tony Leung Kar-Fai) can organise a defense, Yan launches a pre-emptive attack against rebel leader Fang Tian (Simon Yam) and kidnaps Chen. It falls to Chen's friend and financier Li Yu-Tang (Wang Xueqi) to put together a rag-tag band of bodyguards - rickshaw puller A-Si (Nicholas Tse), Fang Tian's daughter Fang Hong (Li Yuchun), seven-foot-tall street vendor Stinky Tofu (Mengke Bateer), beggar and former nobleman Liu Yubai (Leon Lai), and Li's own son Chong-Guang (Wang Bo-Chieh). And at the same time, Li's concubine (Fan Bingbing) seeks the aid of her ex-husband, ne'er-do-well gambler Shen Chung-Yang (Donnie Yen), whilst British police chief Shi (Eric Tsang) must decide whether to help or hinder his friend Li.

How 'bout that, I actually managed to write a plot summary that included every single member of the film's star-studded ensemble. And that's definitely one of it's major selling points. That's twelve characters there on the poster, many of whom are played by Hong Kong and China's biggest stars, each getting an iconic moniker such as "The Gambler", "The Tycoon", "The Revolutionary" or "The Rickshaw Man". (Which is a neat bit of marketing, by the way - it really makes the film seem epic.) The movie's biggest success is in balancing them all, giving each a dramatic subplot, and turning them into likable and well-drawn characters - all the better for the dramatic impact when the action scenes kick in.

It takes a while to get there though, but that's by no means a flaw. The first half is almost all setup, introducing each character as well as establishing the historical context. And if you're itching to get to the fight scenes, settle down and enjoy the character drama first, which is really quite well done. The script establishes a number of relationships - Li and his rebellious son, Chong-Guang and A-Si, Chen and his former student-turned-adversary Yan, Shen and his old flame, and more - that are quite effective, even if they're necessarily lightly-drawn given the ensemble nature of the film. They all have different reasons for putting their lives on the line for a man they don't even know, most of which have nothing to do with patriotism or revolutionary spirit. But those themes are also present and accounted for, giving them a worthy cause for which to fight. (And of course, Sun Yat-sen wasn't assassinated in Hong Kong in 1906, but the plot does a clever turn to sidestep that fact and still maintain suspense.)

But this is Hong Kong film; more broadly, this is Asian film, with its typically melodramatic style of storytelling. This is a film where a rowdy street protest by democratic activists suddenly become silent witnesses to a heart-rending father-son argument. It isn't enough that Shen's old flame tells him that the little girl she's raising as Li's daughter is actually his - he must also run down the street after their rickshaw just to get a closer look at the girl. And when our heroes give their lives to protect Sun during the action-heavy second half, they will do so in the most awesomely heroic manner possible. There's plenty of blatant tear-jerking in this film, and while it does often cross the line into cheesy and manipulative, it also often works. This is heroic bloodshed, folks - that uniquely Hong Kong genre that combines action with grand operatic emotion, and if you don't have at least somewhat of an appreciation for it you pretty much need never watch a Hong Kong film.

And speaking of the action-heavy second half - yes, this is practically a full hour of wall-to-wall action, as the rickshaw convoy carrying Sun crosses a gauntlet of vicious Qing assassins. Unfortunately, the action isn't up to what you'd expect from a Hong Kong film. Director Teddy Chen films the fight scenes with quick cuts and shaky-cam, making it impossible to enjoy the martial arts choreography. He may have done so to cover up the fact that neither Leon Lai nor Li Yuchun - who both star in their own fight scenes - are trained kungfu artists. But even Donnie Yen's big fight with MMA star Cung Le (last seen in Pandorum and Fighting) is as incoherently shot and edited. I fear many moviegoers expecting an all-action spectacle will be disappointed, if they don't get with the characters and the themes. These are the things that keep the second half compelling, if not spectacular.

Wang Xueqi is easily the standout amongst the cast. His character performs the most emotional heavy lifting in the film, and Wang is outstandingly up to the task - the movie owes much of its success to his gravitas and screen presence. Donnie Yen gets top billing, but Li Yu-tang is the real main character of the movie. The other actors all portray simple roles effectively - Nicholas Tse is surprisingly good as a loyal simpleton, NBA player Mengke Bateer is one of the most likable of the heroes, Fan Bingbing is ridiculously beautiful (okay, that says nothing about her acting, but damn, she is), and Hu Jun is an effectively hissable, yet noble, villain. Sadly, the film's largest misstep is in casting Leon Lai as the secret kungfu master Liu. He does his best, but he's simply the wrong actor for that kind of character. I thought he should've swapped roles with Yen.

I really ought to mention the set, a meticulously - and very expensively - recreated life-size turn-of-the-century Hong Kong. The streets, Li's palatial home, Chen's printing presses, even Shen's tenement apartment - it all looks terrific, and effectively transports you into a different time and place. The same care and polish that went into the production design is reflected in every other aspect of the film, enough to smoothen out the weak spots. Don't go in expecting a non-stop "ta kau" flick, and you'll be able to enjoy a historical action-adventure that's stirring and poignant and epic in all the right places. There's no movie like a good Hong Kong-style heroic bloodshed movie, and we're lucky they're still making 'em.

NEXT REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes
Expectations: looking forward to it


RaiderLegend said...

Oh man, here it is 2016 and your seven yr old post is still the best review of this movie. You nailed it with everything you say about this movie. I've also seen a lot of movies, foreign and domestic. Bodyguards and Assassins is a revolutionary masterpiece!