By Jonathan Chow
This season’s much watch holiday movie, Bodyguards and Assassins is a highly anticipated action drama and studded with almost as many stars as Founding of the Republic. But this debut film of Cinema Popular, a collaboration between Hong Kong and Mainland filmmakers, is not your typical kung fu flick.
The plot of Bodyguards and Assassins revolves around Sun Yat Sen’s crucial 1905 visit to Hong Kong, where he met with revolutionaries from all regions of China to share his strategy for overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. The Empress Dowager learns of Sun’s plans and sends out her assassins, led by the eyebrowless giant, Yan Xiaoguo (Hu Jun), to kill him upon arrival. Meanwhile, Chen Shaobai (Liang Jiahui), Sun’s trusted colleague arrives in Hong Kong ahead of time to ensure Sun’s safe passage with businessman Li Yutang (Wang Xueqi). Together, they recruit an unlikely band of bodyguards from all walks of life each with their own skills and motivations for protecting Sun.
But what could have become a full-on fists-bared kung fu extravaganza chose instead to emotionally engage audiences with human drama. Instead of jumping from fight scenes and ending with astereotypical boss battle, ‘Bodyguards’ spends the first half of the movie introducing each character, setting up the complex web of motivations for either killing or protecting Sun, and gradually building up the dramatic tension to a boiling point.
The movie saves its many fight scenes for the second half, which focuses entirely on the tumultuous day of Sun’s arrival when all hell breaks loose. Yet each fight sequence manages to carry a lot of emotional depth and you never get the feeling that the story was ever compromised to show off flashy kung fu.
But what was most surprising about the film was its democratic undertones. The opening sequence shows Jackie Cheung cameoing as an intellectual quoting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and telling his students that they will someday see a democratic China, before getting shot in the head by a Manchu sniper. The entire movie is about martyrs (not all of them with the most heroic aspirations) who end up fighting for and/or dying for democratic ideals against a government trying violently to suppress them.
In the end, this is more than a kung fu flick. It’s a historical epic/tragedy with action elements – and it’s shocking how historical the filmmakers were allowed to get. Either the ideals of these revolutionaries flew past the heads of the relevant ministries… or alternatively, they’ve decided the Chinese public’s already too ingrained in now’s ideals to ever draw the connections we saw.
In any case, it’s definitely one of the few Chinese films actually worth watching in theaters right now. Check out show times here.