17 December 2009 | dont_b_so_BBC
Twisting the Threads into a Rope
How do you make a movie based on a known/historical event worth anyone's while, when the final outcome is already well-established? Well, the answer that "Bodyguards & Assassins" provides is: not "with lots of new twists", but "with lots of heart". That's right, this is fully-commercialized blockbuster film-making at its most sincere-- where the previews were reporting how often it made test audiences cry.
I mean, with the casting of 12 named stars (each of whom could have headlined their own movie), the building of a full-scaled outdoor historical set, and an array of prize-winning martial-artists/ action-choreographers, etc.-- this film is about as "gimmicky" and "review-proof" as movies can get. But the cast strives to put their roles before their persona and become masters of the "wordless stare", the set stays quietly in the background without any panoramic sweeps of the camera, and the fighting is mostly shown in short, brutal bursts... which means audiences unwilling to read subtitles or do some research should just skip it-- since it packs an emotional punch rather than a visual one.
Make no mistake,"Bodyguards & Assassins" is almost the complete antithesis of the "mindless action movie" (the "thoughtful" action movie?)-- in fact, action sequences get "cut-off" at every opportunity just to remind you who and what these people are fighting for... so that the violence is always awashed with the tragedy, not thrill, of witnessing the "march of history" (as historical fiction, there's no real question as to who lives and who dies in the end).
Having realized from the box-office and critical success of "The Warlords" (2007) that the Chinese audience is a thinking one (i.e. Chinese blockbusters can be mentally "engaging"), the production team decided to pack a quintessentially Chinese socio-political melodrama into a historical tear-jerking actioner-- presenting the events of 15 October 1905, Hong Kong as the bitter fuse that sparked off the next 6 consecutive years of rebellions (occuring after end of the movie) leading to the fall of the Qing Dynasty. In fact, the script is so solid that you might find yourself wanting more of the drama than the action-- because the movie is paced/ structured as an unrelenting series of ever-tightening expositions (& related fighting) that reveals more and more about the people and the "fin de siecle" that is the real heart of this film... before all the build-up is gently released with a teary eye and a few end-titles.
Such an approach should have been doomed from the start, but the accomplished film-makers (much like the historical figures in the movie) mostly managed to weave all the disparate elements into an ensemble act that is not dominated or resolved by "leave-your-brain-at-the-door" action set-pieces or CGI eye-candy. The historical setting called up a whole host of period clichés, while the varied casting and side-stories drew attention to any uneven acting and editing-- but the expert directing and sharp dialog made 3-dimensional characters out of 2-dimensional stereotypes, while veteran actors Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Wang Xue-Qi ably anchored the film as a rhetoric-spewing revolutionary ("The day of reckoning is here!") and his reluctant financial-backer ("how much money do you need this time?"). There are some production flaws with less-than perfect make-up, CGI, etc.-- which are expected (& understandable) in Asian productions... but there is also an air of "authenticity".
So this is an "action" movie to watch, if you feel like having a good cry-- over all the little people who contributed to the success of the 1911 Revolution... unless you actually need the movie to tell you who Sun Yat-sen is, which means you are not really its target audience. This is Chinese cinema going back to its good old roots of tapping into the collective memory of its blood-stained history-- and digging out a few more shades of gray.