HONG KONG -- Emulating the group dynamics of Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress" and patriotic heroic ethos of King Hu's "The Valiant Ones," Teddy Chen's "Bodyguards and Assassins" concocts smashing action and a compelling dramatic arc from a kamikaze mission to protect China's first president during his visit to Hong Kong in 1906.
With stirring nationalist sentiments, a select cast and possibly the most authentic set and CGI replicas of turn-of-20thcentury Hong Kong, "Bodyguards" lived up to its blockbuster ambitions with combined Asian boxoffice gains of over $47 million, of which $40 million came from China. Produced by Peter Chan ("Warlords") and China's Huang Jianxin through their new venture Cinema Popular, its marketability beyond Asia rests on the last 50 minutes of propulsive, undiluted action to offset its long running time and occasional emotional excess.
Though the mission and the assassination plot are fictional, the film conveys the danger and excitement of a historical milieu when Manchurian monarchists and Chinese revolutionaries cross swords, while Confucian family values wrestle with Western democratic ideals.
In October, 1906, the Qing court gets wind of exiled revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen's plan to meet allies in Hong Kong to formulate strategies to overthrow the monarchy. General Yan (Hu Jun) is dispatched to mastermind his assassination. China's republican future rests on scholar Chen Shaobai (Tony Leung Ka-fai) and a local tycoon Li Yu-tang's (Wang Xueqi) efforts to recruit a team of 'bodyguards' to protect Sun. Unbeknownst to Li, his son Chongguang (Wang Po-Chieh) has volunteered to play a pivotal role.
In shaping a motley crew with individual agendas for defending a man whose significance they can't comprehend, the script gives them a common bond by defining them through filial relationships -- an opera performer (Li Yuchun) wants to avenge her father's death, a gambler (Donnie Yen) protects Li for his daughter's sake, a rickshaw boy (Nicolas Tse) treats Li as a father-figure (for arranging his marriage) and the beggar (Leon Lai) is ruined by desire for his stepmother. Even Yan pays lip service to Chen for being his teacher, hence "equivalent to a father."
This is not a coincidence as the patriarchal family is the bedrock of Confucianism. The underlying theme is that personal and blood ties must yield to higher ideals of nationhood, freedom and equality -- epitomized by Chongguang visiting Dr Sun's mother in his place. The film's strongest emotional pull comes from Li's dilemma of patronizing the cause yet fearing his son's involvement. The most touching dramatic development is Chongguang's growing respect for Li as the latter's revolutionary commitment deepens.
Wang trumps the whole cast with a performance that tempers integrity with human frailty. Tse also stands out for playing the humble laborer without any trace of star aura.
However, Chen's direction tends to be heavy-handed, especially the over-use of reaction shots and sentimental 'dying visions' when his experienced cast can evoke pathos more naturally.
The intricate maneuvers that unfold three days before Sun's arrival are related at urgent pace. Conversely, the few hours of Sun's rickshaw ride past 13 blocks is directed to feel like an eternity for the protagonists as they ward off hundreds of Ninja-like assassins. The tension is heightened by a countdown display on screen and many near-real time sequences.
Versatile action choreography designed to foreground period architecture (like a fight between Colonial style balconies using bamboo poles) as well as recreated landmark locations (like the homage to "Battleship Potemkin" enacted on Ladder Street) does justice to the monumental scale Shanghai studio set. Donnie Yen does all the hard work, and excels in one seven-minute continuous combat where he tops his ferocious boxing with a wild dash through a shopping alley, leaping over things with the thrilling agility that rivals Tony Jaa in "Ong Bak."
Production values are impeccable, especially Taylor Wong's classical cinematography, which gives images a romantic oil paint finish. CGI shots of a sampan-filled Victoria Harbor capture the look of vintage photos or colored prints.
Composers Chan Kwong-Wing and Peter Kam use contemporary melodies which stand out from the period setting and sound as bombastic as "Mission Impossible," but they do give the action scenes extra bite.