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Featured DVD Review: Bodyguards and Assassins

July 25th, 2011

Bodyguards and Assassins - Buy from Amazon

Bodyguards and Assassins was a huge hit in its native China earning roughly $40 million at the box office, not to mention a record-breaking 18 Hong Kong Film Awards nominations, as well as 8 wins. That sets up high expectations, but can a movie about the Chinese revolution in the early 20th century find an audience here? Or will something be lost in translation?

The Movie

The film starts in 1901 with Professor Yang Quyun talking with his students about the ideals of democracy. He's sure democracy will come to China, even if he doesn't live to see it. And he's partially right, as he's killed right there, becoming the victim of the first political assassination in the history of Hong Kong.

Flash forward five years and Sun Yat-sen, a.k.a., Sun Wen (Zhang Hanyu) is set to travel from Tokyo to Hong Kong to further Professor Yang's dream of bringing democracy to China. He is to speak with the heads of the provincial rebel leaders, who have not been able to unite up to this point. If he can get them to see eye-to-eye and joing a single rebellion, the corrupt government of China will fall to the will of the people. The current rulers of China, the Qing Dynasty and Empress Dowager Cixi, plan to fight back by sending a group of assassins to kill him and end his threat to their rule. Leading this group of six assassins is General Xiaoguo Yan. When General Yan arrives in Hong Kong, he begins to follow the people Sun Wen has come to meet with, including Li Yutang, a businessman who give financial aid to the democratic revolutionaries, and Chen Shaobai, an editor in chef of a newspaper. Those two men know what kind of danger Sun Wen will faces, so they hire a group of bodyguards to protect him from the Emperess's assassins. Sadly, the assassins get to the bodyguards first.

Now that the professional bodyguards are no longer there, the locals form a group of misfits to protect Sun Wen, for various reasons. For much of the rest of the movie, different characters are recruited to be bodyguards for different reasons, mostly for redemption. It's like Seven Samurai, if the samurai were the farmers instead. It's not as good as Seven Samurai is, but since that movie is an all-time classic, that's hardly an insult.

The film has the right epic feel to it and the dramatic portions of the movie add a lot of heft to the action. You can tell this is part of something big, as opposed to a strictly action oriented martial arts movie, like Rumble in the Bronx. The period costumes and set design are spectacular. The acting from the ensemble cast is steller, and it's no surprise the cast members earned a dozen major nominations for various major Asian film awards (Golden Horse Awards, Hong Kong Film Awards, Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, and Asian Film Awards). There's not a lot of action in the first half of the film. In fact, it takes about 80 minutes before Sun Wen arrives in Hong Kong and the titular bodyguards and assassins finally square off against each other. However, from that moment till the end of the film, it's roughly an hour of pure action. And since we've spent so much time with some of these characters, it had a lot more emotional impact that your average Kung Fu movie.

On the other hand, there were two main flaws. Firstly, while we got to spend a lot of time with some of the character, many were not as well developed. There are at least a dozen main characters, some of which I would have trouble identifying or describing beyond the simplest terms. For instance, one of the characters is a gentle giant and while he's easy to identify in the crowd, his character depth doesn't extend much beyond those two words. Secondly, while some of the individual fights are amazing, and rather unique, the overall arc of the fight has been seen countless times in many, many movies. We see the fight begin with the good guys outnumbered and they kill off many, many bad guys, but are picked off one-by-one. It's the same basic arc that was in 13 Assassins, which I reviewed just a few weeks ago. These are not major flaws and shouldn't bother audience members.

Okay, there's a third flaw. I've been told the film is not exactly historically accurate. I don't care. This might be a bit insensitive and it might be like making a movie about the American War of Independence and throwing in a rag-tag team of misfits that save George Washington's life just before a key battle. It might not have happened in real life, but I would watch that movie.

The Extras

There are two extras on the DVD, a multi-part making of featurette and a collection of extended interviews, clips of which are featured in the making of featurette. The former is divided into characters, set, design, make-up, and action, so it hits pretty much every aspect of the filmmaking process. In total, there are close to 45 minutes of extras, which is good for a foreign import.

The Verdict

Bodyguards and Assassins was a huge hit in its native China, both with critics and with moviegoers, and while it might not have quite the same impact here because of the historical context, it is still absolutely worth checking out for fans of martial arts epics. The DVD isn't exactly loaded with extras, but there are more than enough to lift it past the rental level and make it a solid purchase.

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Filed under: Video Review, Shi Yue Wei Cheng, Jûsan-nin no shikaku