China / Hong Kong 2009 Directed by: Teddy Chan Written by: Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Bing Wu, James Yuen (plus several other unknown writers) Produced by: Peter Chan, Jianxin Huang Cinematography: Arthur Wong Music: Peter Kam, Kwong Wing Chan Cast: Tony Leung Ka Fai, Wang Xueqi, Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Nicholas Tse, Bo-Chieh Wang, Jun Hu, Bingbing Fan, Eric Tsang, Simon Yam, Jackie Cheung, Michelle Reis
Peter Chan and his new production company Cinema Popular are challenging Hollywood by recently announcing that they intend to produce Chinese films that are finally at eye level with the big US productions. First proof of their capabilities is BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS that set out to become one of the most impressive and large-scale production ever coming out of China. This all looks promising on paper, but reality is another thing altogether and unfortunately the local and foreign press is just largely repeating Peter Chan’s promises. Key points of the hype are the myth of 10 years production time (hello, James Cameron), a story with truly epic dimensions based on historical facts, an exceptionally large budget of 23 million US$ and one of the biggest all-star casts in recent memory. Altogether a foolproof recipe for another milestone of China’s very successful 2009/2010 vintage.
The film is set in the Hong Kong of 1906 and tells the story about a revolution that will bring the Qing dynasty to an end. The leader of the movement is Dr. Sun Yat Sen and he is meeting in Hong Kong with other clan leaders to discuss the procedure how to topple the dynasty. Intel says that his enemies are planning to kill him on the way to the meeting, and hence a group of bodyguards is hired to protect him from the assassins. Will they succeed?
BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS hasn’t been made for the History Channel, so it’s dramatizing the real events in pretty much the same way as most other films that are loosely based on facts: personal conflicts and fates are synonymous with the greater political development and society. In the first half the film is allocating much of its time to introduce the historical background and the people involved: BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS is overly dialogue driven at the beginning, explaining the relationships of the characters as well as their political position and reasons for joining or not joining the movement. This is all not too bad, but we can’t help but notice that too many writers want too much and thus too much remains on the surface – unfortunately also relevant details, while much time is wasted on irrelevant characters or events that do not help developing the story at all.
In the second half BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS finally gears up: the boiling point is near and you’re in for a one-hour-showdown that gradually builds up until the end. There are a lot of loose ends, but the script is incoherent and clearly lacking detail. It simply doesn’t give us the impression that it’s clever. It’s too concerned with circumstances, juggling around a million things instead of making sense. It’s like watching the Titanic hit the iceberg: the chain of events is logical, but we know how it’s going to end. Surprise looks different.
The last hour is more convincing than the rest and helps make BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS seem better than it is. After raising expectations over the last months the movie disappoints in many ways: except Tony Leung and Wang Xueqi basically everyone is acting below standard or is simply miscast (like Simon Yam); some obviously enjoy overacting (Eric Tsang) or are just not acting at all (Leon Lai as beggar is a joke). Nearly all dramatic moments seem rather ridiculous: death scenes are as convincing as your local amateur theatre, attack cries are amusing at best, combat scenes look like first takes. The action choreography is surprisingly weak, just like the sets: it’s so unbelievably obvious that fists and swords are miles away from the opponent (and no, we’re also not digging the CG blood that makes for 99% of all blood spilled – in view of the budget we would have expected more); the sets or better the one set is unimpressive and we ask ourselves where exactly all the money went.
If the alleged historically correct reproduction of Hong Kong’s central district is responsible for consuming large parts of the budget then we must clearly say that was a waste. The set unfortunately looks like any other studio set, with two streets and buildings, filmed from different camera positions and angles so it all appears bigger than it is. And who can say whether these roads are actually historically accurate or not? And who cares? Would it have made any difference using existing sets? The film isn’t exactly accurate with facts anyway. Picture this: a super-exact replica of a location does not make the script better.
Add to that an uninspired, heard-it-before soundtrack and there’s little left that’s actually good. Peter Kam has had better moments than BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS. We could go on and on, but our favorite flaw is Leon Lai’s clearly visible adhesive tape (sic!) around his fake beard – sorry, but this is unforgivable.
Last but not least let’s have a serious look at a film that takes itself very seriously indeed. BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS has a certain political idea high up on its agenda: Democracy. Wow. Now, we all know that China has not yet fully adopted democratic ideals. The movie however is not only trying to derive the term etymologically in a questionable way, it also uses the term and the ideas behind in the most convenient and favorable way the communist party could think of. In view of the well-known political and social conditions that should make us wonder, and it does: a closer look reveals the paradox as an impudent trick, one we already know from branding attempts of totally democratic places like Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or various banana republics in Africa (not to forget China). What BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS means with democracy is freedom from „foreign influence” and “royal ancestry”. What the propaganda means is: to hell with the old emperors, to hell with the Englishmen.
Whatever revolution was back then, here and today „democracy” is very compatible with the Chinese system. No trace though of fundamental conflicts between nationalists and communists, instead the film promotes people power and self-determination. Maybe the good intention got lost along way. BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS is caught in the present conditions, unable to project a balanced view of what democracy is or can be, at the same time reinterpreting the historical events within the context of modern-day China.
Sometimes promises are just promises. Maybe next time.
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