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Bodyguards and Assassins (Shi yue wei cheng)

dir: Teddy Chen
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Sometimes, movies, and indeed film reviews, ask a lot of you. They demand that you know a little bit about something in order for you to either give a fuck about what you’re watching / reading, or that you have some idea of what’s going on in order for it to make some sense.

What I’m talking about, in this instance, is not a knowledge of relevant history, contemporary or ancient. Nor is it a demand for understanding of the incredible history of one of the longest continuous civilisations on the planet, being the Chinese.

No, what is demanded in this context is a deep/superficial knowledge of just how much the Chinese, and Hong Kong, film industries, desperately need to pacify and placate their Communist / Totalitarian / Capitalist masters by popping out propagandistic swill occasionally.

You yourself might have heard about the real life person called Dr Sun Yat-Sen, who sought to unify China and cast off the shackles of their Manchu masters, but it’s even more relevant to know why a flick such as this depends on knowing that: Sun Yat-Sen was one of those initially ‘unpersonned’ persons, to use the Orwellian phrase, that the Communists initially reviled as a tool of foreign backsliding imperialism, but then reclaimed. It’s even more illuminating to realise that the fucker has fuck all to do with this flick, except for some crucial lines delivered by an eerily waxwork replica of the man.

Also, this quite average flick swept the awards this year at the Hong Kong Film Awards, which are, I guess, the equivalent not of their Oscars, but of both the Logies / Golden Globes and a critical reward for directors, actors and producers who, at all times, never piss off the ancient old monsters of the Party back on the Mainland.

Bodyguards and Assassins bears nearly no relation to anything that ever happened. Not only that, it’s a ludicrously overblown, and, it has to be said, quite stupid work-up of what might have happened over the course of three days in Hong Kong back in 1906. It bears little relation to anything remotely close to truthiness.

That doesn’t mean it’s devoid of entertainment value. It mixes overwrought melodrama with touching nationalistic sentiment, and delivers a second hour of pretty ridiculous action. It also has most of Hong Kong’s working male actors in it for a few minutes at a time. And it has the alleged current titan of HK’s martial cinematic arts: Donnie Yen, whose acting is as terrible as ever, and whose fighting, gloriously obscured by shaky camerawork and shoddy CGI effects, seems completely at odds with the film around it.

But I’m not complaining. About the presence of action, that is. Some of the stranger scenes of non-action are singled out for action-y camerawork, jittering and juttering shit around as if the scenes will look better and more exciting. They don’t. They look comically inept. When it’s applied to actual action scenes, it makes the difficult to see and the hard to grasp about impossible to give a fuck about.

I’ve gotten this far into the review without actually articulating what the goddamn flick is about: let me enlighten the three of you that have gotten this far. Living in exile, Dr Sun Yat Sen decides to travel to Hong Kong in order to hold a meeting with some guys hoping to start a revolution to overthrow the Ching Dynasty. The Ching Dynasty, in the form of formidable Empress Dowager Ci Xi sends legions of assassins to kill him. Out heroes are there to stop them. Or prepare yum cha, whichever.

Too many characters is the least of the flick’s many problems. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t consider giving a reasonable amount of backstory to these characters, outlining their motivations, for wanting to protect Sun Baby, to be a bad thing. What it results in is the first hour of the flick alternating between boredom and laughable melodrama, and the last hour or so constituting ridiculous and inane action.

Sun Yat Sen is not really a character in the flick, because the main plot has our heroes creating a diversion with a decoy in order to put the assassins off his trail. It’s one of those plots that you accept at first glance, but then have one of those moments where you just click and say, “What? No, that’s fucking stupid.”

Whilst I can see the necessity in carrying on as they do initially, nothing Our Heroes do in the second half makes any sense to me in terms of explaining how or why any of that crap, whether it involves diversionary rickshaw drivers, thousands of crossbows or giant ex-Shaolin monks getting stabbed a million times by child assassins, none of it makes sense in terms of HOW it ended up protecting Sun Yat Sen.

The main reason for that is that none of this shit ever happened. Sure, people working on behalf of the Ching Dynasty tried very hard to off Sun Yat Sen because he was advocating the violent casting off of the Manchu’s shackles. But this flick, purporting to have a historical basis, uses the diversion / decoy plot to divert us as well. It’s also harder to fabricate a plot, I guess, where the real barroom-brawling, Abraham Lincoln-quoting Sun Yat-Sen, is being dragged around Hong Kong, being shot at and blown up.

It could have happened, sure, but I doubt any of it looked like this. You might feel that me pissing and moaning about the lack of dramatic credibility in a Hong Kong flick’s plot is kind of like complaining about the lack of alcohol in milk, but this flick didn’t portray itself as being an action ‘wu xia’ flick. It goes to great lengths to seem like it’s relating a very true and very important story that functions as one of the foundation myths of the People’s Republic.
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And therein lies the rub. It’s a dumb drama / action flick that’s essentially propaganda. The ‘individual’ sacrifice element, and the only bit that has someone playing Sun Yat Sen, urges that blood must be spilled in the service of the revolution, and that people have to give themselves up to the greater good of the Party’s ultimate glorification.

Sure, it’s not as sickening as last year’s other Party-Mandated Masterpiece Founding of the Republic, which required every single successful working Chinese actor to make an appearance (and thus obeisance to Beijing), but it’s still plenty distasteful.

All that crap being said, I didn’t hate all of it. Donnie Yen can always be depended on for two things: awkward and unintentionally funny melodramatics and awesome fights. He delivers both with gusto, or whatever the Cantonese equivalent is. He gets a few minutes to shine in violent ways, which are still oddly incongruous in the context of the rest of the flick.

He does, unfortunately, get the second funniest moment in the flick where he tries to stop the leader of the assassin’s horse by the incredibly brilliant and unsuccessful technique of just running into it. The lengths the script goes to in order to ‘craft’ heroic deaths for each of the protagonists is comical instead of touching, which I’m sure the Party Overseers never intended, they being a notoriously humourless lot.

About the only acting performance I liked was by Wang Xueqi as Li Yu Tang, a businessman whose friendship with one of the leaders of the uprising reluctantly compels him to play a part in proceedings. What I liked the most about his performance is that the character looks reluctant to be involved from beginning to end. Talk about bringing an ambiguous quality to the table! He’s great, and he’s about the only character who doesn’t seem too ludicrous as time rolls on.

Plenty of other stalwarts of HK film, like Eric Tsang, Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Leon Lai, Nicholas Tse, all get their fifteen seconds of screen time, in the case of Tse he gets probably the most screen time as a stupid but good-hearted rickshaw puller who does his best to protect his young master, Li Yu Tang’s son, from harm.

There is too much defective and non-credible crap in this flick for it to be taken seriously, either as a historical epic or as a straight out action flick. It relies on hackneyed storytelling and awful tropes in order to propel a story forward that deserves no momentum. The second half is marginally more enjoyable that the first, but even then…

Sun Yat-Sen led a remarkable life, he did some amazing stuff and, influenced by American and European ideals of liberty, democracy and emancipation, sought to elevate the Chinese people from their indentured and horrible feudal state. How or why you would such a historical personage in such a lame action vehicle is mystifying to anyone without access to the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, or internal Party memoranda, I’d wager. And I have no access to such apocrypha, so instead all I can do is marvel at how such a film won so many awards unless voting occurred at gunpoint.

Which wouldn’t be a surprise.

5 ways the pram rolling down the Odessa steps at the end at least made me laugh out of 10

“Revolution is not a dinner party” - “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.” – Sun Yat-Sen, or possibly Ice Cube, you figure out which one is which, Bodyguards and Assassins