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Bodyguards and Assassins [Blu-ray]

(aka "Shi yue wei cheng" or "Sap yueh wai sing")

 

(Teddy Chen, 2009)

 

 

 

 

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Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Production:

Theatrical: Polybona & Cinema Popular

Blu-ray: MegaStar

 

Disc:

Region: FREE!

Runtime: 2:18:28

Disc Size: 47,895,595,152 bytes

Feature Size: 38,276,198,400 bytes

Video Bitrate: 23.05 Mbps

Chapters: 16

Case: Standard Amaray Blu-ray case

Release date: May 11th, 2010

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080P / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

Audio:

Cantonese Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Cantonese DTS-HD MA 7.1
Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1
Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1
Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0

 

Subtitles:

Traditional & Simplified Chinese, English, and none

 

Extras:

• Making of Bodyguards & Assassins:

• • Characters (22:06)

• • Set & Make-up (2:55)

• • Design (3:40)

• • Action (4:30)

• Trailer & TV Spot

 

 

The Film: 8
The year is 1906. While San Francisco endured one of the most celebrated earthquakes of modern times, China was facing one of its own: the rise of Sun Yat Sun and the rebellion he fomented against hundreds of years of dynastic rule. The setting of Bodyguards and Assassins (a title that inadvertently and unhappily suggests something in the way of an Nintendo fantasy role playing game) is Hong Kong. The players are ordinary people caught up on one side or the other of revolution.

For the most part we are concerned with supporters of Dr. Sun - those that are near fanatical in their passion for a new China and those who would prefer to go through life enjoying what benefits there are but become a part of the revolution in a vortex of social inertia. The action takes place over a handful of days as Hong Kong readies itself for a visit by Dr. Sun. Officially, he comes to visit his ailing mother, but the word on the street is that he plans to meet with some thirteen leaders from various parts of the country to lay the groundwork for revolution.

The local revolutionary faction, led by Chen Shao Bai (Tony Leung Ka Fai - the other Tony Leung) is trying to gain support among local businessmen and especially his friend Li Yu Tang (veteran actor Wang Xueqi) who up until now has been content to support the cause with money, but stops well short of putting his body on the line. No such injunction rules Li’s son, Chung Guang (young Taiwanese actor, Wang Bo Chieh) who, like so many of his age, intellect and talent, throws himself into harm’s way with an abandon that properly frighten’s his father. (Both Li and Chen, by the way, are based on real historical figures.)

The elder Li becomes the story’s emotional heart and fulcrum. It is his long delayed decision to take an active role in this budding revolution that focuses our attention on the entire question: In the the absence of personal hardship, how does one take up a cause that only appears to benefit others and risk everything for oneself? It is not a question that is easily answered - certainly, platitudes calling for a greater China carry little weight when one has all the comforts.

 


Chen and his followers have a plan to put those who would assassinate Dr. Sun at a disadvantage. You’ll recall that at this time, the British were politically in charge in Hong Kong but they could hardly be expected to police the entire city. Sun would be escorted through British-controlled Hong Kong to the rendezvous, but from there he would have to make his way to see his mother through occupied territory, so to speak. The rebels decide to send a decoy on that leg of his tour while Sun himself remains to meet with the thirteen. That decoy is made up of a small caravan of rickshaws and bodyguards, not all of whom realize that they are on something of a suicide mission. It is the personnel of that decoy caravan that make up the first part of the title - they are from high and low social status, men and women. Their stories are touching, at times, when script and director grant enough time for us to get to know them well enough, heartbreaking.

Among these are some of Hong Kong’s most visible actors: among them, the aforementioned Tony Leung Ka Fai, Donnie Yen as a palace policeman and gambler who finds cause to switch sides, Leon Lai as a beggar, Li Yuchun as the daughter of a fallen revolutionary, the giant Mengke Bateer as a Tofu hawker, and Nicholas Tse as a rickshaw puller.

On the other side is the formidable Hu Jun as Quo, loyal to the crown to a fault. Quo leads a small army of killers with every imaginable weapon at their disposal. They line the streets from the rooftops and second story windows and patios. They suddenly reveal themselves as erstwhile civilians and shoppers in the extended marketplaces of the city. They could be anyone and appear at any moment.

It may come as a surprise that the film that this movie put me in mind of was not of the historical Chinese martial arts variety, but Hiroshi Inagaki’s relatively inward looking Chushingura from 1962. Chushingura is the story of the 47 Ronin who remain loyal to their late lord at the cost of their lives. Inagaki spends more than a third of his three and a half hour movie detailing the lives of just a handful of the final 47 so that their attack on Kira’s home and their eventual deaths at their own hands becomes that much more sublime. Many, like the fallen heroes of Bodyguards and Assassins, were young and had much to live for. The difference is that the samurai had a couple of years to think about their decision whereas our “bodyguards” are swept along in a moment of passion, yet their sacrifice is of no less historical import.

Both movies wind up with an awesome fight - in the case of Chushingura, the roles are reversed: the “good guys” are the assassins while the bodyguards are a mix of professionals and hired thugs. Kira is the embodiment of everything wretched about the feudal system, but in Teddy Chan’s movie, the excesses of the Qing Dynasty is only referred to rather than depicted. In fact, there is no physical evidence of Dr.Sun’s complaints; it is merely taken as understood. So much for balance or the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, between Cowardice and Heroism, and why Chushingura is a great and completely satisfying film while Bodyguards and Assassins is merely entertaining and gratifying.

There are many wonderful performances in this movie: Wang Xueqi as Li Yutang, especially, who lends the necessary gravitas and credibility; Fan Bing Bing as Yuet Yu (Mrs. Li), once attached to Donnie Yen’s compulsive gambler but leaves him in hopes of a future for her baby; Donnie Yen who at 45 continues to mature as an actor; the redoubtable Hu Jun as the one man you want on your side when your back is up against the wall, as is the ailing Qing Dynasty; Li Yu Chun as Fang Hong, who only seems to do little more than smile sweetly and appreciatively at Nicholas Tse whose poignant rickshaw man and loyal servant to the Li family strikes the perfect humane balance to the war of fanatical ideals represented by Quo and Chen.


 

Image: 9/9   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
MegaStar presents Bodyguards and Assassins in a wonderfully filmlike image that faithfully recreates Peter Chan’s recreation of 1906 Hong Kong. The filmmakers eschew the usual predilection for filtered color and instead opt for a natural palette, made vivid only by judicious lighting. Textures are detailed, which is especially evident in the exquisite palatial costumes and Fang Bing Bing’s refined silks. Blacks are deep and noiseless. Transfer artifacts, noise and noise reduction are not in evidence. The print is pristine, as expected for a film so new. The strong bit rate makes for a solid, coherent image.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 7/8
There’s one exciting scene where the uncompressed 7.1 mix – Dolby or DTS – comes crashing through the ceiling, quite literally, with falling glass and sprays of flesh-eating acid overpowers both the hapless victims and our senses. Elsewhere, the audio is content to honor more traditional locational cues such as whistling arrows, gunfire and crashing storefronts. Much of the film, however, is more front-directed with the surrounds providing subtle ambiance, street and crowd noises. Though the menus are bi-lingual, MegaStar’s Blu-ray has no English language dub.

Ordinarily I would be all over this release for its careless attitude toward its choice of default language mix in high definition audio. A casual glance at the choices in the language menu suggests that Cantonese is the primary spoken language and Mandarin is the dub. In fact it’s the other way around. So, points off for having no lossless track for the language that’s spoken by the actors. Why, we should ask are there two uncompressed tracks in Cantonese but only the now ancient and tired Dolby Digital 5.1 for Mandarin.

 


That said, there are two, perhaps three practicalities to consider: The first is that if you have to rely on subtitles, you won’t notice the disconnect. Second, neither the Cantonese or the Mandarin tracks are in perfect lip sync so you might not even observe the discrepancy if you weren’t fixed on the subtitles since there’s not a great deal of difference in lip movement between the two spoken languages. Third, to my eye and ear, it appears that some, though not all, of the Cantonese is dubbed by the actor and not a stand-in. Still, you would have thought it only proper for the Mandarin to be offered in one or the other high definition formats. It is clear who the target market is for this Hong Kong produced video. Still that’s no excuse.

 

Operations:6
I found the Extra Features menu difficult to manage. The text is clear enough but what is highlighted as we curse our way through it is not. There's no play all for the making of documentary.

 

Extras: 6
There are a few limited extra features with this release - a short Making-of featurette, a Trailer and a TV Spot - nothing particularly worthy of note but thankfully at least they all have English subs.

 

Bottom line: 8
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover - and that goes double for the title. I can see that those who require a martial arts action flic will be bored by the first half, and those who respond to the sentiment and drama of the first half might wonder where it all went during the second. My feeling is that Bodyguards and Assassins is a fine movie, granted a lovely image on this Blu-ray, though with a problematic choice of audio tracks.

Leonard Norwitz
November 8th, 2010

 

 

 

Thinking of buying from YesAsia? CLICK HERE and use THIS UPDATED BEAVER PAGE to source their very best...

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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