AKA: My Beloved Bodyguard
Director: Sammo Hung
Cast: Sammo Hung, Jaqueline Chan, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Zhu Yuchen, Jack Feng, Li Qin Qin, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Tsui Hark, Karl Maka, Dean Shek, James Lee Guy, Tomer Oz, Yuen Qiu, Feng Shaofeng, Hu Jun, Eddie Peng
Running Time: 99 min.
By Martin Sandison
The Bodyguard is Sammo Hung’s first directorial feature since 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China and America, which easily makes it one of most highly anticipated Hong Kong films of recent years. I was lucky enough to attend Udine Far East Film Festival (absolutely worth a pilgrimage), where Sammo received the Golden Mulberry Lifetime achievement award right before the audiences eyes. The ceremony was followed by The Bodyguard’s European premier on the closing night – a real treat for those who attended!
Sammo plays Ding, an ex-army officer and bodyguard who is retired and living in the suburbs. He discovers he has the early signs of dementia, which the film deals with very sensitively. His landlord, Park, (Li Qin Qin) has a romantic interest in him, and his neighbour’s (Andy Lau) daughter, Cherry, (Jaqueline Chan Pui Yin) sees him as the Grandfather she never knew. When Lau’s character gets involved with some gangsters after stealing a case of precious jewellery, Ding must rediscover his martial arts skills to deal with the gangsters.
It’s no joke to say Sammo’s performance in The Bodyguard is one of his best. But don’t be mislead by many of the film’s trailers, which pushed the action to the fore. With the exception of three standout action scenes, The Bodyguard is really a low key drama. The other film that immediately sprang to my mind in a similar vein was Heart of the Dragon (1985), wherein Sammo played a mentally disabled brother to Jackie Chan’s tough cop. That film was made at the height of Sammo’s powers, but didn’t feature him performing any action. The Bodyguard is a much more mature piece of filmmaking than Heart of the Dragon, with the nuances of Sammo’s performance plain to see; especially in comparison with the rather bad taste of Heart of the Dragon.
The Bodyguard features many touching moments that are played out subtly, without the over emphatic soundtracks that plague many Hong Kong films. In fact, Sammo says very little throughout the film, but his facial expressions and body language create a wonderful picture of a man near-broken by his past, which he is forgetting bit by bit. When his character divulges what he remembers of his past, Sammo’s reactions are on point. The result is heartrending and emotionally honest.
The limitations of age meant Sammo had to change his action style. With the realistic implications of his character’s old career, we see this change. The first fight is short and to the point; whereas the second is the centrepiece, which has his character taking on a roomful of guys. Immediately, you can see this adaptation; instead of wider shots with more than a few exchanges, most shots are very short and the camera is very close in. Some viewers may be a little disappointed by this, I certainly wasn’t: The pin sharp editing, the conviction of the attacks and the brutal bone breaking are a feast for the eyes. There are some brilliant ideas that reflect the old age of Sammo’s character: One where he elevates his legs and throws an opponent, and the next shot shows him in pain. It’s this human aspect to the film that really marks it above many other martial arts movies, and reflects Sammo’s genius.
Fans will be delighted to see cameos by Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Tsui Hark, Karl Maka and Dean Shek. Despite none of them doing any action – not to mention their limited screen time – it’s great to see them all share the screen with some good laughs to be had in their exchanges. Andy Lau, one of the producers of the film, is his usual charismatic self in a supporting role (look out for a great chase involving his character). Feng Jia Yi appears as the head gangster and does a good job of conveying his character’s evildoings.
Problems with the film are some of the supporting cast don’t match Sammo, especially Li Qin Qin. Overall, the film also takes a while to get going, however, these are minor faults that don’t detract from a very well rounded movie.
The Bodyguard really is a triumphant directorial return for one of the legends of Hong Kong cinema. Its moral compass, superb action, Sammo’s great performance and its delicately portrayed subject matter mean I will revisit it time and time again.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8/10