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The biggest Hong Kong event film of the last couple of years arrives in the form of “Bodyguards and Assassins”, the latest blockbuster from director Teddy Chan and producer Peter Chan. A historical piece revolving around Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen’s visit to Hong Kong in 1906, the film features a top drawer cast playing bodyguards assigned to protect him from killers sent by the Qing government, including Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Nicholas Tse, Golden Horse Best Supporting Actor winner Wang Xueqi, Taiwanese actor Wang Bo Chieh (recently in “Winds of September”), along with NBA basketball player Mengke Bateer and pop idol Chris Lee turning their hands to acting. As if this wasn’t enough, the film also features Hu Jun (“Mulan”) as the head villain, and Eric Tsang, Simon Yam, Fan Bingbing, Zhang Hanyu, Jacky Cheung, and Michelle Reis in supporting and cameo roles.
The plot follows the real life events surrounding the controversial Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen’s 1906 trip to Hong Kong, during which he aimed to hold talks with fellow leaders to organise an uprising against the Qing imperial government. Prior to his arrival, the Qing send court official Xiao Guo (Hu Jun) to plan and enact his assassination and to put down the insurrection. Working to protect the man and his mission are activist Xiao Bai (Tony Leung) and the slightly more reluctant businessman Li (Wang Xueqi), who enlist the services of an unlikely collection of heroic bodyguards, including a corrupt policeman (Donnie Yen), Li’s rickshaw driver (Nicholas Tse), a mysterious beggar (Leon Lai), a former Shaolin Monk (the massive Mengke Bateer), the daughter of a murdered revolutionary (Chris Lee), and Li’s own son (Wang Bo Chieh). As the great man’s visit draws near, the group lays its plans, and prepares for battle and sacrifice on the streets, determined to protect his noble cause at any cost, even their own lives.
As might be expected for a historical piece, and particularly given its all important subject matter, “Bodyguards and Assassins” spends the first half of its two hours plus running time setting the scene, exploring the ideals and characters behind the revolutionary cause. Even for anyone who may be unaware of this turbulent and key period, this makes for fascinating and gripping viewing, with Chan proving himself a great and passionate storyteller, weaving the various characters and their motivations into the plot. The film’s evocation of the politics and movements of the time is similarly well handled, coming across as believable without being too preachy, and just about substantial enough without being dry.
This is helped considerably by the film’s amazing production values, which include a wholly convincing recreation of 1906 Hong Kong, along with immaculate sets and costumes. This really pulls the viewer into the story, and gives the film a mightily impressive look and atmosphere. Also on the plus side is the fact that the cast are all on fine form, turning in respectable and committed performances. Thankfully, Chan never drops the ball by introducing much in the way of the usual needless comic relief that tends to plague Hong Kong cinema, with even the few playful scenes that crop up early on serving a purpose.
All of this scene setting really pays off during the second half of the film, when Sun Yat-sen arrives, and the action begins. Featuring some sterling choreography from Tung Wai (who recently also worked on the new blockbuster version of “Mulan”), the film provides non-stop, breathtaking thrills, with plenty of brawls, duels and acrobatic chase scenes. Inevitably, it is Donnie Yen and his embittered policeman who really steps up during these scenes, having plenty of opportunities to show off his incredible agility and fighting skills. However, it is very much to Chan’s credit that the film always remains a team effort, focusing on the nobility of the bodyguard’s collective struggle, and with none of their efforts or personal sacrifices being glorified over those of the others. The film is violent and bloody when it needs to be, with some bone crunching martial arts and viciousness on the part of the Qing assassins, and this serves well to up the tension, and to keep the viewer very aware of the mortal danger faced by the characters, and the price of failure. As a result, the film is equally gripping during both halves, and manages to really make the viewer care not only about the righteous cause, but also about its ensemble cast of characters.
For anyone even remotely interested in Hong Kong cinema, “Bodyguards and Assassins” is about as close as a film can get to being a genuine must see event. One of the few films to live up to its hype and billing, with its near perfect cast, superb production values, and engaging drama and action, it easily stands as one of the very best films of the last few years.
Teddy Chan (director) / Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Bing Wu, James Yuen (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Sum Chung-yang
Leon Lai … Lau Yuk-bak
Xueqi Wang … Li Yue-tang
Tony Leung Ka Fai … Chen Xiao-bai
Nicholas Tse … Ah Si
Jun Hu … Yan Xiao-guo
Simon Yam … Fang Tian
Bingbing Fan … Yuet-yu
Cung Le … Sa Zhen-shan