Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Bodyguards and Assassins (2009)

This is the eighth film review in the coverage of Montreal's 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival. The least we can say is that Teddy Chen's Bodyguards and Assassins announces us that gone is the time when Hong Kong didn't know how to make good blockbusters.

In October 1905, four days before Sun Yat-Sen, a Chinese revolutionary, arrives in Hong Kong, Chinese empress Cixi had sent assassins. They are led by General Yan Xiao-Guo (Jun Hu) and their job is to kill Sun, because his opposition to the monarchy makes him a "traitor". While he has always financed Li Yue-Tang (Xueqi Wang), the owner of a pro-revolution newspaper, decides to openly declare his full involvement in the revolution. In fact, the British authorities in Hong Kong closed his newspaper, the China Daily and his revolutionary friend, professor Chen Xiao-Bai (Tony Leung Ka Fai), got captured by the assassins.

Moreover, before the arrival of Sun Yat-Sen in Hong Kong, Li Yue-Tang rallies a handful of men and a woman. This team is made of a group of rickshaw pullers, the daughter (Yuchun Li) of a former Qing general (Simon Yam), a beggar (Leon Lai) who comes from a rich family, a former policeman (Donnie Yen) and a former monk of the Southern Shaolin monastery. They must protect Sun Yat-Sen while he's being transported to his ailing mother's house. However, the Sun Yat-Sen in question is actually Li Chung-Guang (Bo-Chieh Wang), Li Yue-Tang's son. Indeed, Chung-Guang acts a decoy to lure the assassins while the real Sun Yat-Sen attends a political meeting and leaves Hong Kong safely.

Obviously, Bodyguards and Assassins knows how to be a good blockbuster in the tradition of Hong Kong and a nice period drama. While one might wonder if the events in Bodyguards and Assassins are mostly accurate, the film succeeds in showing the confrontation between pro-Qing Chinese and revolutionary Chinese. In fact, although the "nice guys" seem to demonstrate the kind of excess of patriotism you see in some Hollywood films, have in mind that nationalism - which is a Western ideology - made its way in China because of many Chinese who got educated in the West at that time.

As for the blockbuster part, the film certainly doesn't break new grounds. In fact, with its depiction of the characters who are bodyguards, the film sticks to the narrative formula that makes these bodyguards perform their task and, above all, search for redemption. For instance, the woman in the group wants to avenge the death of her father at the hands of Qing assassins; the former policeman wants to prove to himself that he's not some stupid gambler; the former Shaolin monks hopes to reintegrate the ranks of Shaolin after his mission and so on.

Not really original, eh? Well, director Teddy Chen certainly knows how to use this formula at the film's advantage. In fact, even though few time is spent on developing the characters of the bodyguards, the film feature a gallery of heroes who fight for their individual cause. Besides, the film adopts a rather balanced approach to make these characters quite believable in that some care less about China's march towards republican democracy than their job as a bodyguard. All in all, Bodyguards and Assassins is a film that has no shame in using the tricks from the blockbuster handbook and it does it smartly.

Finally, if you're in for the action scenes, have in mind that most of them are at the end of the film. However, many will wonder - and with reason - why wires were used (in a rather subtle way) in the film. After all, wireworks are suited for a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, because they're not historical films, but rather films with a little bit of fantasy. Other than that, Bodyguards and Assassins give us the pleasure to see established stars from Hong Kong (ex: Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Eric Tsang, Nicolas Tse and Simon Yam) as well as emerging ones (Li Yuchun and Wang Bo-Chieh) play with such a marvellous chemistry.

Rating: 4/5

Origin:Hong Kong (2009)
Length:139 minutes
Genre:Historical drama
Screenplay:Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Bing Wu and James Yuen
Director:Teddy Chen
Starring:Xueqi Wang, Tony Leung Ka Fai and Donnie Yen

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