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Bodyguards and Assassins
|     review    |     notes     |     availability     |
Bodyguards and Assassins     Bodyguards and Assassins

(left) Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Wang Xueqi, and (right) Leon Lai in Bodyguards and Assassins
Chinese: 十月圍城  
Year: 2009
Director: Teddy Chan Tak-Sum
Producer: Peter Chan Ho-Sun, Huang Jianxin, Jojo Hui Yuet-Chun
Writer:

Chun Tin-Nam, James Yuen Sai-Sang, Guo Jinli, Wu Bing

Action: Stephen Tung Wai, Lee Tat-Chiu
Cast: Wang Xueqi, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Hu Jun, Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung, Wang Bo-Chieh, Donnie Yen Ji-Dan, Leon Lai Ming, Li Yuchun, Mengke Bateer, Fan Bing-Bing, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Zhou Yun, Xing Yu, Cung Le, John Sham Kin-Fun, Wang Wenjie, Philip Ng Won-Lung, Dennis To Yue-Hong, Zhang Hanyu (cameo), Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau (cameo), Michelle Reis (cameo), Kate Tsui Tsz-Shan (voice), Michelle Ye (voice)
  The Skinny: Teddy Chanís highly-anticipated Bodyguards and Assassins is flawed, but well-calculated commercial entertainment with impeccable production values. The focus on drama over action may disappoint Donnie fans, but the film will satisfy many.
 
Review
by
Kevin Ma:

After 10 years of tumultuous production history that included rainstorms, labor disputes, suicide, and two spells of depression, Teddy Chanís Bodyguards and Assassins has finally arrived. Anticipation is high, as everything here seems to be screaming ďqualityĒ: a solid ensemble cast, an intriguing pseudo-historical gimmick, and even Peter Chanís producer stamp of approval (this is the first film under his new Cinema Popular label). Given all the above, it may disappoint some to know that this isnít the best movie of the year. However, it's still an admirable attempt to create a Hollywood-scale Chinese-language blockbuster.

One can say Bodyguards is Hollywood-like in terms of scale Ė the film reportedly cost more than $150 million RMB to make, much of it going to building a scale replica of Hong Kongís Central District circa 1906 Ė but itís also Hollywood-like in terms of commercial calculations. The film has a simple historic background ripe for overseas consumption; multiple times, it didactically spells out its ideological self-importance; and it goes out of its way to give each of the 12 major characters Ė each fulfilling an archetype Ė at least one major dramatic moment. All the above is done to insure that the hour-plus long exposition in the first half (which breaks the tradition of classic Hong Kong action films, in which action must appear in intervals) will make the action-packed second half more than worth the wait.

Fortunately, the first half of exposition introduces enough involving characters and situations that itís more than effective in getting audience emotionally involved in the story. In 1906 Hong Kong, democratic activist Chen Xiao-Bai (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) gets word that friend and revolutionary figure Sun Yat-Sen (Zhang Hanyu, in heavy make-up) will be visiting Hong Kong to meet with other activist leaders about overthrowing the Qing government. Chenís propaganda newspaper is funded by politically indifferent businessman Li Yue-Tang (Wang Xueqi, the closest thing to a lead actor of the film), who is adamantly against his son Chung-Guang (Wang Bo-Chieh) joining Chenís revolutionary movement.

With news of Sunís impending trip reaching China, the Qing court sends out its best assassin Xiao-Guo (Hu Jun) to make sure the revolution leader sleeps with the fishes before he reaches the meeting. Xiao-Guo and his gang first wipe out a group of veteran soldiers, led by Fang Tian (Simon Yam), who were charged with protecting Sun, and then kidnap Chen. When Li decides to drop his indifference and keep his missing friendís hope alive by taking up the mission, he realizes heíll need a strong group of bodyguards to make sure Sun gets out of Hong Kong alive. That group includes Tianís daughter Hung (pop star Li Yuchun), family rickshaw driver Ah Si (Nicholas Tse), street vendor/ex-Shaolin monk Stinky Tofu (NBA player Mengke Bateer), disgraced aristocrat-turned-beggar Prince Lau (Leon Lai), and policeman/gambling addict Chung-Yang (Donnie Yen), who was once a spy for the Chinese assassins. With the assassins surrounding Central ready to attack and the British-run police force refusing to interfere, will the group of ragtag misfits help Sun get out of the city alive? Which of them will survive the deadly attacks of the Qing court?

With very little action in the first half, the filmís four screenwriters (plus several more, who go uncredited) wisely take their time to set up the big climax. They not only create situations to bring these people together, they also flesh out the characters by giving each an agenda as they go into battle. Despite the overly didactic talk about the glory of the revolution (surprisingly, the word ďdemocracyĒ gets thrown around a lot for a film essentially made for China) and obviously calculated emotions (the subplot with Ah Siís marriage could easily have been scrapped), the filmmakersí focus on characters makes the first half involving. With solid performances from the cast, especially Wangís commanding businessman and Tseís convincing simpleton (though Ah Siís close relationship with Chung-Guang may be a little too close for comfort), Bodyguards and Assassins is a surprisingly engaging drama up to that point.

Then the big finale arrives. In nearly real-time, Chan connects multiple major action sequences together as one big hour-long finale. Every character gets to do their part, and itís easy to get involved with their ultimate fates. However, Chan fails to impress visually with the action, opting for MTV-style close-ups and quick edits that intensify the pace without making the action coherent enough for the audience to see. Even with the presence of Donnie Yen, who volunteered to reshoot and choreograph several action scenes, the use of wire in his fight scenes takes the viewers out of the relatively realistic nature of the other action sequences. Donnie performs adequately, but even his presence can't elevate the action. Itís exciting to finally see the set used to its fullest, and there are some exciting moments, but Chan overemphasizes the character drama, cutting the action scenes (especially Prince Lauís one-against-many showdown) to serve the emotional tone of the story.

Theoretically, itís fine to mix lots of slow-motion emoting and teary eyes with fragments of ass-kicking if its done in the name of the revolution. However, when Chan and his scriptwriters spend over half the film to build anticipation for a potentially action-packed second half, itís a little disappointing when the action doesnít deliver. On the other hand, with Chan leading an impressive technical team and a solid ensemble cast, Bodyguards and Assassins is as close to quality as it gets when it comes to big-budget Chinese blockbusters. While the story itself holds very little surprise, Chanís emphasis on storytelling over kinetic action is truly surprising. The fact that itís a more of an emotional drama than an action film may disappoint a foreign audience expecting Donnie to single-handedly wipe out the bad guys, but Bodyguards and Assassins is still well-calculated and solid commercial entertainment that will pack seats and earn box office in China and Hong Kong. After all the trouble theyíve gone through, the two Chans can now rest easily. (Kevin Ma, 2009)

 
Notes:

• Kozo's mini-review of Bodyguards and Assassins can be found here.

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Kam & Ronson Enterprises Co.
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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