I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for epic historical films. Grand, sweeping narratives recalling some great event, or really any film where I get to stare at gorgeous sets and costumes. That’s pretty much the reason I went to see Bodyguards and Assassins. I thought, why not learn a little history while I watch some cool martial arts and sumptuous costumes?
Except apparently, this isn’t really historically accurate. And while the film doesn’t explicitly says that it is, that is certainly the impression (I did not learn of the inaccuracies until afterward.) Set in 1906 in Hong Kong, it purports to tell the story of democratic activists fighting against British colonialism on one side and Imperial rule on the other. A group of activists are preparing for the visit of revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who is coming under the guise of a visit to his sick mother, while in reality meeting to conspire with fellow revolutionaries. But then, this never actually happened, at least this specific event, and while Sun did oversee the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, his government in China would eventually be overthrown by communism (though his vision of a Republic of China continues in Taiwan.)
The film is not really about Sun, but the people he was supposedly trying to liberate. Rich merchants, intellectuals, peasants, all were a part of Sun’s vision, and they are the focus of the film. So should historical accuracy matter? Probably not, as the movie is supposed to be about the ideas rather than the events. Focusing around the plan to keep Sun safe, the first half of the film introduces the various characters: the merchant who gives money to the cause, the newspaper editor who illicitly prints pro-democracy papers, the merchant’s son who joins in the revolution, the merchant’s new young wife and her former lover, whom she pays to guard her husband, and various others from all economic and social strata.
The film had the feel of an old-time war propaganda film such as Casablanca or Mrs. Miniver. As we get to know the characters in the first half, so several of them die in the second half. (And they are given names, dates and places of birth and death, so presumably these were real people who died in some capacity during the revolution.) Some of the fight scenes are incredible, especially one man who fights off almost an entire platoon with what looks to be an iron fan. All this is played brilliantly to tug at the heart-strings and have the audience cheer for the heroes. But overall it’s not a very memorable film. Like so much junk food, it tastes good at the time and hits the spot but is forgotten a few hours later, until the next craving for a different junk food comes along. Not to say that it isn’t worth watching; there are some great fight scenes, and the costumes and sets are great. If you want two plus hours of looking at this kind of film, go ahead. Just don’t go in with high expectations of history or depth.