EXPECTATIONS: A China-pandering, cheap mess.
REVIEW: Director Yue Song must have had a time machine when he made this film. Best known for his martial arts skills and for being a one-man film-making crew for his first film, The King of the Streets, he comes back for his sophomore effort, The Bodyguard (aka Super Bodyguard). Not to be confused with the 2016 Sammo Hung effort of the same name (which is also known as My Beloved Bodyguard). The first time I heard about this film was from the ridiculously bold trailer that had boastful quotations like “The Best Kung Fu Film of the Last 20 Years!” and “The New Bruce Lee (Is) Coming!”. The trailer had me laughing so hard and so derisively that I knew I had to see it, expecting to trash-talk and criticize the hell out of it. So does the film live up to its frankly ridiculous remarks or will it fail miserably and disappear into mediocrity?
Director, writer, editor and star Yue Song stars as Wu Lin, a martial artist, village bumpkin and all-round badass. After the death of his master, Wu Lin leaves his home to look for his friend and fellow student, Jiang Li (Xing Yu), also a martial artist and all-round badass who could not be any more obvious as the villain unless he had it tattooed on his forehead. After a weird and absolutely scary encounter with a snotty little brat of a kid (I’m not kidding, you need to see it to believe it), he sees a man being attacked by a bunch of thugs and he saves him. The man turns out to be Jia-Shan Li, one of wealthiest men of the city. Out of sheer coincidence, Wu Lin bumps into Jiang Li and the two catch up on old times, like all bro-mances go, unfortunately without all the homoerotic undertones. Wu-Lin is then hired by Jia-Shan Li to be the bodyguard (hence, the title) Fei Fei, a rich, petulant woman who wants nothing to do with her father and especially not Wu-Lin. As the two bitch and moan (and not in a good way, it is a China film after all) to the point of actual bonding, Jiang Li goes on with his diabolical and villainous schemes to the point that it puts Wu Lin and the people around him at risk. With no options to retreat or surrender, he chooses to put the foot down. And I don’t just mean on the ground.
You may wonder why I am writing my synopsis with a snarky tone. Well it is because the story is cliched and predictable as hell, that the only people who would be surprised at a story such as this would be people who have never seen a movie before. But predictability does not ruin a film; the execution does. So how does the film hold up? The acting is overstated, the scene transitions are jarring, the storytelling is slipshod to the point that feels like Cliff Notes to a larger story, the dubbing is horrendous, the subtitles are full of grammatical errors and the tonal shifts are so abrupt, you can hear the necks of the audience break. While all of those factors would be low points in a critical standpoint, but in the case of The Bodyguard, they can actually be seen as positives, even highlights of such a film. Let me clarify my viewpoint a little.
What do all 90’s modern-set Hong Kong martial arts films have in common? They all have abrupt tone shifts, they all have crummy storytelling, they all have inconsistent acting, the subtitles are grammatically incorrect, the synthesizer music and they all have ill-fitting dubbing. But they also all have a palpable passion and enthusiasm in the film-making that makes them undoubtedly entertaining. And it is in that comparison that I ask: Did director Yue Song use a time machine to make this film? Because that has to be the only explanation to explain why The Bodyguard is one of the most nostalgically and unintentionally fun experiences I’ve seen so far this year.
All the actors play their archetypal roles in such an overstated way, that it becomes quite endearing. Yue Song plays the role of stoic hero to a T, but he is quite charismatic, in between all the posing, that is reminiscent of 90’s Jet Li, without the rock-like emotion. For Xing Yu, he plays the villain with ease and keeps up with Yue Song really well. He could actually be seen as either a 90’s Collin Chou (who is also in this film as a small cameo) or Chin Siu-ho, the villain in the 1993 Jet Li film, The Tai-Chi Master. As for the supporting cast, they’re just there as plot devices, but Li Yufei stands out just due to her commitment into portraying such an spoiled, annoying socialite that it is alternately annoying and entertaining, similar to Christy Chung’s role in The Bodyguard from Beijing. Am I noticing a pattern here? The cameos from noted martial artists Michael Chan Wai-man and Collin Chou aren’t much if one is expecting a fight scene or two from them, but it is the dubbing to them that makes them stand out since it is so bad, that it becomes laughable.
As for the fight scenes, they are wildly energetic and are refreshingly free of CGI. The stunt-work looks fantastic and the full contact of it all makes it entertainingly cringe-worthy. But the use of style of the fight scenes can polarize at times. First off, there are times that undercranking (speed up) is utilized and it comes off as unintentionally hilarious, but it only happens in the first fight scene and I think it was intentional. It is reminiscent of 90’s Donnie Yen films like Legend of the Wolf and even his TV series of Fist of Fury. While the climactic fights tend to overcrank (slow down) that it takes out the urgency of the fight at times. But overall, they are fantastic to watch and it helps that all the opponents that Yue Song fights are actual martial artists or people that have the right physicality for their roles. Actors like Jiang Baocheng (The Wrath of Vajra), Xu Dongmei (Little Big Soldier) and others lend a lot of credibility to their fight scenes.
But the problems in the film come from the flaws I stated above and while they add to the nostalgic throwback 90’s vibe of the film, it can irk current viewers. One example is when Wu Lin is stretching his big, long legs (good for ballet, by the way) for the splits, a woman is doing a lap dance on him until she stops because his package is too big for her. By the way, this happens right after the villain makes it so obvious that he is the villain, that he might as well have two mustaches. Another example, a child’s penis is shown urinating on the camera as a
gag reflex gag. No, I am not joking. It certainly shocked and made me laugh, but it was such a random insertion that you have to wonder what the hell was going on in Yue Song’s mind when he wrote this? But then again, a eerily similar gag is shown in Wong Jing’s 1995 Die Hard rip-off, High Risk, which adds to my theory that Yue Song has a time machine. It is jarring humour and tone shifts like that and many other scenes that will have people laughing awkwardly or wholeheartedly. Or they will exclaim in horror over and over; who the hell knows?
Plus, the story is a mess, structurally. Alongside the sledgehammer-like predictability, the revelations and plot reveals that come with the film are so forced and so random, it’s almost as if the script was torn to shreds and put back together again. Nothing is foreshadowed properly so when the revelations occur, it will just provoke laughter or puzzlement; clearly not the intended reaction from the film-makers.
Laughter is good for you, no matter what the context is, and unintentional entertainment is still entertainment. Don’t fight it. With the right frame of mind (or you are an aficionado or cineaste of Hong Kong cinema), you can have a lot of fun with The Bodyguard. As for the statements in the trailer, the film doesn’t even come close to those, but like the trailer itself, you can’t help but admire its chutzpah.
Yue Song and Xing Yu are capable actors and even better fighters
The fight scenes and stunt work are impressive and ferocious
The throwback and nostalgic vibe of 90’s Hong Kong action films adds a lot of fun (whether intentional or unintentional)
Jarring sense of humour (a scene in the first three minutes scared the shit out of me)
Revelations come out of nowhere
Fight scenes can be quite overedited
Collin Chou does not have a significant role and doesn’t fight much at all
Cast: Yue Song, Xing Yu, Li Yufei, Michael Chan Wai-man, Collin Chou, Jiang Baocheng, Xu Dongmei
Director: Yue Song
Screenwriters: Yue Song