Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Sum Chung-yang (Donnie Yen) in Bodyguards and Assassins.
Re(a)d history

By John Esther

After a 40-minute delay, the Newport Beach Film Festival screened (somewhat incompetently: wrong ratio aspects, reel-changing snafus) the 140-minute film, Bodyguards and Assassins, to a surprisingly half-empty theater. Notwithstanding the delay, it was a Saturday afternoon, it was the festival's only screening of the epic film, it featured martial arts star Donnie Yen (Hero; Ip Man) and the 2009 film has not been set for a U.S. theatrical release. I presumed the theater would be packed to capacity. 

(The film will screen at both the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival in May.) 

Directed by Teddy Chan, Bodyguards and Assassins sets itself in British-rule Hong Kong, 1906, where a group of dedicated democrats pledge to protect Dr. Sun Wen (Zhang Hanyu) from a group of Qing assassins dedicated to the kind of law and order we see tyrannical rulers trying to preserve currently in Syria, Iran and Libya. And China.

For those seeking nonstop martial action and little else, look elsewhere. There is plenty of plot, back story and character development here. Director Chan and writers Tim Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Bing Wu and James Yuen want audiences to know the motivations behind each of the main historical characters, most of which happen to be, legally speaking in U.S. terms, kids. Seventeen-year-old Chong-huang (Wang Po-cheih) is set to attend school in the United States, but would rather stay and fight for a new China. Chow Tofu (Mengke Bateer) is a very big, seemingly invincible teenager from Shaolin moved by anti-authoritarianism. Recently-orphaned Fang Hong (Li Yuchun) learns at the age of 16 what is really important.

A fine film in some regards (impressive set design; crafty fight scenes; dialogue about East versus West values), Bodyguards and Assassins, is suspicious in light of China's current regime. Young characters ready to shed blood for the revolution, the reported $23-million dollar film is not only about learning Chinese history, but also about perpetuating sentiments of China's current revolution for today's youth. Keep up your Red Guard.

Starting from its simplistic title cuing the youth to the queues to see those martial arts queues (both historical and cinematic symbols -- depending on one's age and knowledge of Sino history), once we learn to love, at least like, the characters in Bodyguards and Assassins, the film revs up for some hyperbolic action. The targeted demographic: young viewers. History gets traded for histrionics as the film's protagonists fight with superhuman skills -- fighting multiple-armed people simultaneously and prevailing, withstanding increasing brutality and enduring hardship, all for the future of country. No sacrifice is too great for the children of the revolution. After the main protagonists die we get a bio clip underneath with name, city of origin, year of birth, year of death. Immortalized. 

It is not just the youth here, either. Yen's character, Sum Chung-yang, is an undetermined-aged (how convenient) policeman with a checkered past. A gambler opened to the highest bidder, he, too, learns that he must sacrifice himself for a better tomorrow. When heroes, historical or cinematic, die on the screen, the message of sacrifice to an audience is similar -- if not repetitive to an illiterate viewer.

For Occidental eyes, Bodyguards and Assassins is more of a playful recreation of history than anything else. There is story and action. The good guys and gal prevail before his and her magnanimous deaths and the British Empire takes a chop to the sternum (although it can still get its people to fork over $30 million for a royal wedding). But for those under the rule of China's thumb -- beyond being financially indebted to it -- Bodyguard and Assassins illustrates something else, quite insidious. 

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