THURSDAY, MAY 6 | CLOSING NIGHT CELEBRATION | 7:00 PM | A/JAT
DATE: THURSDAY, MAY 6
TIME: 7:00 PM
BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS (Shi yue wei cheng)
(Hong Kong, 2009) Dir.: Teddy Chan; Scr.: Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Bing Wu, James Yuen
35mm, 139 min., color, narrative, in Mandarin w/ E.S.
BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, this year’s Festival Closing Night attraction, continues the trend of history-grounded works we’ve seen from Hong Kong filmmakers of Festivals past: Stanley Kwan’s ROUGE (Festival 1992) observes Hong Kong’s urbanization through the filter of a courtesan’s ghost seventy years removed from the present day; Mabel Cheung’s THE SOONG SISTERS (Festival 1998) offers a dizzying overview of history courtesy of three socialites whose lives intertwine with world events; while works such as Wayne Wang’s LIFE IS CHEAP…BUT TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE (Festival 2004) casts a wary eye on Hong Kong’s post-1997 handover from the Great Britain. Director Chen’s latest, a liberal retelling of revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen’s fateful 1906 trip to Hong Kong to rally squabbling factions against the Qing Dynasty, is certainly one of Hong Kong’s most lavish tellings of its history, even more so than last year’s Donnie Yen starrer IP MAN (2008). Imagining a Hong Kong not unlike the wild wild West, Chen and company deliver a tense, taut tale that paints history through the eyes of opposing forces as well as those of ordinary people goaded into extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism.
In the days leading up to Sun’s April 16, 1906 trip to Hong Kong, Qing Dynasty operatives, under orders from the Empress Dowager Cixi, organize to assassinate Sun (referred to as “Sun Wei”). Meanwhile, the revolutionaries led by Chen Shaobai (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and businessman Li Yutang (Wang Zueqi) race to assemble a team of bodyguards to safeguard Sun on his perilous yet fateful meeting with fellow Tongmenghui members to overthrow the Qing. This being a Hong Kong action movie first and foremost, complications leading up to Sun’s arrival ensue: rebel forces led by exiles Qing general Fang Tian (Simon Yam) are ambushed by Qing assassins; British police led by police chief Smith (Eric Tsang) threaten a shut-down of Li’s newspaper, a major sounding-board for revolutionary foment; and Chen himself is kidnapped by Qing agents in the wake of the attack on general Fang’s men. The fate of the revolutionaries, rendered in a series of striking cinematic set-pieces, offers a prelude to the main act that dominates the film’s entire third act: on the fateful day of Sun’s arrival, the remaining revolutionaries, including Li’s headstrong son Chongguang (Wang Po-Chieh), his trusty sedan driver (Nicholas Tse), Fang Tian’s orphaned daughter Hong (Li Yuchun), an outcast Shaolin monk who goes by the nickname “Stinky Tofu” (Mengke Bateer), a police officer bent on redemption after his gambling addiction costs him his family (Donnie Yen), and Liu Yubai (Leon Lai), a highly-skilled martial artist whose specialty is the Iron Fan, organize a risky decoy maneuver in constant threat by the very skilled and ruthless legion of Qing assassins.
At turns lavish and kinetic, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS recalls recent forays into Hong Kong’s history and star-crossed relationship with its British colonizers (Ronnie Yu’s 2006 FEARLESS starring Jet Li is one recent example), and offers multiple opportunities for many of its stars to shine, however briefly. As a work of history, the merits of its accuracy is secondary to depictions of heroism expected of the fanboy crowd — we’re guessing that the opportunity to see Donnie Yen, Li Yuchun, Mengke Bateer, and Leon Lai lay spectacular waste to Qing assassins will meet with rousing approval from tonight’s audience. Yet in the end, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS finds a knowing kinship with John Woo’s recent epic RED CLIFF, another slow-burning action epic that takes care to cultivate a special bond between its myriad characters and its audience. In that respect, the revolutionaries — not to mention director Chen — will have succeeded, splendidly.
— Abraham Ferrer