Monday, March 22, 2010

Bodyguards & Assassins [Shi yue wei cheng]

Teddy Chan | 2009 | 139 mins | China / Hong Kong

At the Asian Film Awards which wrapped mere hours ago in Hong Kong, the two top acting awards went to veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi and Hong Kong heartthrob Nicholas Tse, who played Master Li and his kindly rickshaw driver, respectively, in Bodyguards & Assassins, Teddy Chan's star studded historical epic. Loosely based on real events, the film looks beautiful but ultimately lacks the serious ass kicking needed to make it a truly fun ride.

The tale is set in 1905, and Sun Yat-sen is on his way to Hong Kong (then a British colony) to plan a revolution to overthrow the crumbling Qing Dynasty in China. Revolutionary Chen Shaobai arrives in Hong Kong a few days before Sun's arrival, to meet Li Yue-tang (Wang Xueqi), a businessman who's been helping to fund the cause. As Sun's arrival draws near, a convoluted sequence of events forces Li to throw full support behind the revolutionaries, rallying a group of men including his rickshaw driver (Nicholas Tse) and a mysterious beggar (Leon Lai) to divert the assassins so that Sun can enter Hong Kong, meet his cohorts and leave safely. While this motley crew tries to protect Sun, Li's young wife has hired Sum Chung-yang (Donnie Yen), a man with whom she has some history, to tail the group and protect her husband. Simon Yam also briefly appears as an exiled Qing General living in exile and disguised as the leader of an opera troupe.

There's a lot of set up, many characters to follow and several side plots (such as the rickshaw driver's touching romance with the lame daughter of a local photographer), so the talk-to-action ratio is a bit out of whack. However, when Master Li's son Li Chongguang is chosen to act as the decoy for Sun Yat-sen in an elaborate rickshaw and foot chase through the city streets, the kung fu finally begins, and it's pretty good.

It's clear from the start that this is the sort of epic blood bath that might end well for "history" but not for any of the individuals involved. As the action escalates, Donnie Yen unsurprisingly has the best fight choreography, and Leon Lai has the most impressive scene, as he battles a whole team of hook and chain wielding assassins with nothing but a deadly black iron fan. The film has had its theatrical release in Asia, and seems unlikely to land on the big screen in North America anytime soon, but look for it on BluRay - the DVD is already out.

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