Bodyguards and Assassins

Bodyguards and Assassins (Shi yue wei cheng) (2009)

Bodyguards and Assassins (Shi yue wei cheng) first published by Little White Lies, 10 Aug 2010

Teddy Chan’s Bodyguards and Assassins (Shi yue wei cheng) may be an ensemble piece – about the ensemble nature of revolutionary progress – but there is little doubt that its main character is time itself. 

It begins on 1 October, 1901, with pro-democracy leader Yang Qu-yun being shot dead in what was to be the first political assassination in Hong Kong’s history. We jump ahead to exactly five years later, and Yang’s fellow radical Sun Yat-sen – who will subsequently become revered in China as ‘Father of the Nation’ and ‘Forerunner of the Revolution’ for his pivotal role in bringing down the Qing dynasty and ending Empire in China – is heading from exile in Japan to Hong Kong for a crucial summit at which he will unite the different revolutionary factions. History is in the making.

As the five days before Sun’s arrival are tensely counted down, loyal imperialist General Yan Xiao-guo (Hu Jun) enters the British colony, where he all at once begins bribing local policemen, efficiently murders the displaced dissidents – including their leader Fang Tian (Simon Yam) – who are Sun’s “one and only defence in Hong Kong”, and incarcerates Chen Xiao-bai (Tony Leung Ka-fai), the revolutionary chair of the United League of China who was also once the General’s teacher. Yan and his ‘invisible army’ of assassins will do anything to eliminate Sun and prevent the foundation of a Chinese Republic. 

With time running out, a desperate counterforce builds. Now that Chen is out of the picture, the previously silent financial backer of his organisation, local tycoon Li Yu-tani (Wang Xueqi), finds his voice and takes the lead in arranging a bodyguard for Sun. He is joined by a motley crew of supporters, each with their own motive. Only Li’s 17-year-old politically committed son Chong-guang (Wang Bo-chieh) – joining the group against both his father’s wishes and knowledge – appears to be a genuine revolutionary ideologue. Li’s rickshaw-driving porter A-si (Nicolas Tse) just wants his masters to be safe; Shen Chong-yang (Donnie Yen) is a gambling-addicted corrupt cop looking to restore his name in the eyes of his estranged young daughter; 16-year-old Fang Hong (Li Yuchun) is determined to avenge her father’s death; the apolitical beggar Liu Yu-Bai (Leon Lai) is a fallen nobleman seeking redemption and escape from his tragic life; and gentle giant Wang Fu-ming (Mengke Bateer) is a tofu seller whose one-time membership of the Shaolin temple has taught him to hate injustice of any political stamp. It is as though The Seven Samurai were rallying together to put themselves In the Line of Fire – and as, over these five days, Li gravely decides on a course of inevitably bloody action, the unsteady sweep of history is symbolised by his pocket watch, first broken, then repaired, and then deliberately mis-set to ensure his absence from the fateful events to come. Here time is all at once fragile, resilient – and can play tricks on  the unwary.

After the tense five-day build-up of the film’s first half, the second plays out virtually in real time. Sun arrives in Hong Kong’s harbour, and is escorted (under heavy attack) to the secret meeting, while a decoy convoy of rickshaws buys him an hour’s time by leading the assassins up the garden path – or more accurately, up a via dolorosa whose every station is paved in suffering and sacrifice. Here Bodyguards and Assassins adopts the disguise of a conventional actioner, allowing each character to have their heroic, as well as hyperbolic, last stand against impossible odds and innumerable assailants – but by punctuating all the wire-fu and chopsocky mayhem with character obituaries presented in coldly matter-of-fact text, the film repeatedly reminds us that behind all its thrilling genre spectacle (and it certainly is thrilling) lies real history, and real lives lost. Now the only pocket watch we see is Chen’s increasingly bloodied one – while many clocks can be heard tick-tick-ticking the advance of revolution to the beat of slaughter. Every second in which Sun plots out China’s future is made truly to count, and to cost – with much pain and death as the price. Talk is most definitely not cheap.

Bodyguards and Assassins

It is why this film, far more than Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), earns its right to model its climax on the famous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence of Battleship Potemkin (1925). Unlike Eisenstein, however, Chan is no straightforward propagandist. The democratic ideals towards which Yang and Sun are struggling, laid out clearly in the film’s opening scene, could hardly be said to characterise the one-party system of elders operating in China today. “Even if I don’t live to see it, you will”, Yang promises the next generation in 1901. It is an idea reinforced later by Chen when he tells Li, “Revolution is about sacrificing our generations for your son’s generations.” Yet in this film, it is the son’s generation that is conspicuously killed (with the age of each victim explicitly stated upon their death to drive the point home). Chan’s decision to focus, in his climactic sequence, on an adolescent’s demise that is entirely pointless and unnecessary makes the doomed exploits of this band of unsung bodyguards the tragedy of an entire nation, sacrificed to an ideal whose realisation always seems to be deferred to the future. 

With its stirring dramas, riveting suspense and engaging performances, Bodyguards and Assassins focuses on a tiny moment in time to suggest that we are all in fact part of an ongoing revolution. It is not so much an action as a call-to-action film, although it never allows us to overlook the high cost that comes with change. Yet while its heroes’ – and history’s – victory may be tainted, for once both sides in the cinematic struggle between style and substance come out as genuine winners.   

strap: Teddy Chen’s stunning period actioner shows the path of ongoing revolution littered with young bodies      

© Anton Bitel