Ever since the success of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, China and Hong Kong have been upping the productions scales of their flagship films little by little. Over a period of about 10 years time they've succeeded in producing subsequently bigger and more epic films. The latest to join the list is Bodyguards And Assassins [Shi Yue Wei Cheng], a welcome variation on the big budget martial arts film.
How he did it, I really don't know, but director Teddy Chan raised enough money to completely rebuild the old center of Hong Kong as one insanely large set piece. It's difficult to say whether it really paid off (considering the equally insane amount of money it must have cost), but the result is certainly lavish to behold. The incredibly detailed reconstruction of the old center of the city is so much more entertaining to watch than whatever CG graphics they could've slapped on instead.
Even though Bodyguards And Assassins falls roughly into the same category of films as Hero, The Banquet, Fearless and last year's Ip Man, its focus lies not so much on action but on retelling the events around the start of the Chinese revolution. No doubt an extremely important event in Chinese history, but I'm sure not many people in the West (including me) will know about the ins and outs. The trailers might have you believe otherwise, but the film is really not a full-on action movie and Chan takes his time to ensure the film is more than a simple martial arts film set against historic events.
Bodyguards And Assassins is constructed around the arrival of Sun Yat-Sen, a key figure in the revolution against the empire. As he is about the set foot in Hong Kong to meet the 13 district representatives, plans are being plotted to get him assassinated. A group of rebels is ready to meet their destiny trying to protect Sun at whatever cost, guaranteeing the success of his mission. There's not too much room for subtlety but considering the epic proportions of this film, it's not something I expected in the first place.
There's a very clear divide between the first and second part of the film. Chan uses the time before the arrival to introduce all the characters related to the events. The whole first part is virtually void of any action and relies on the characters and the drama surrounding their mission. While this is far from boring, it does become a little too melodramatic at times. Once Sun arrives the second part of the film kicks off, shifting gears and playing like one massive action scene.
The detailed and elaborate sets makes sure there is plenty to enjoy on a visual level. The scenes on the street of Hong Kong are simply amazing. Still it feels as if Chan didn't make full use of what he had in his hands. I wouldn't have minded if the city had featured a little more prominently, now Chan is a little quick to cut away from some scenes. The camera work too is a little too slick, especially during the first half. The music suffers similar problems.
As for the actors, not only production values seem to be rising, there's also a trend of cramming in as many familiar faces as possible. The cast is almost as impressive as the set, with Simon Yam, Eric Tsang, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Donnie Yen, Fan Bing Bing and Leon Lai on the team. Still nothing compared to the cast of Founding Of A Republic, but an impressive list of actors nonetheless. It is ironic though that the best performance in the film is delivered by none of the above, but by the relatively unknown Xueqi Wang. Even though his character is rather flat and boring, he brings him to life which such apparent ease and style that the man deserves at least some kind of recognition for his role.
For those of you that have trouble sitting through an hour of non-action, rest assured that the second part of the film has some very strong and raw action scenes in store. Yen is put to good use here, though his role remains rather small. Leon Lai has some cool scenes too as enigmatic martial arts master, but it remains a little strange to see him like this. The bad guys are equally impressive and form a believable threat to the heroes, putting some mean moves and behavior on display.
Teddy Chan made a good choice when he decided to split the action and drama so rigidly. It gives you plenty of time to sink into the whole setting, easing you into one long action trip at the end. As for the presentation, there is plenty to enjoy though the feeling remains that a different director could've made more of it. It might be a little disappointing considering what it could've been, on the other hand there are some truly stunning and impressive scenes to be enjoyed here.
I don't know how long they can keep up this trend. Looking at Bodyguards And Assassins and Founding Of A Republic, it's hard to imagine how they are going to top the scale of these films. But as long as they keep making them as impressive as this, I have very little to complain about. Very much recommended if you've been enjoying the epic productions of the previous decade.