The Bodyguard [特工爺爺] (2016)
AKA My Beloved Bodyguard
Starring Sammo Hung, Jacqueline Chan Pui-Yin, Andy Lau, Feng Jia-Yi, Zhu Yu-Chen, Li Qin-Qin, Tsui Hark, Karl Maka, Dean Shek Tin, Tomer Oz, Du Yi-Heng, James Lee Guy, Sergio Deieso, Maksim Manylov, Avetyan Karen, Hu Jun, Yuan Ting
Directed by Sammo Hung
Expectations: Very high! I’ve been stoked for Sammo’s directorial return since it was announced a couple of years ago.
The Bodyguard marks the return to the director’s chair of one of Hong Kong’s greatest treasures: Sammo Hung. It’s been 19 years since he released his last two films (Mr. Nice Guy and Once Upon a Time in China and America) on consecutive days in 1997, so to call The Bodyguard “long-awaited” is an understatement. The last time Sammo Hung directed a movie I was in the 10th grade trading 5th generation bootleg VHS tapes to see Hong Kong movies! Times have certainly changed, and as a result The Bodyguard is as much a modern film as it is a product of Sammo’s incredible experience and skill.
Ding Hu (Sammo Hung) was a decorated policeman in his day, but now he’s known as Old Ding to his neighbors. His health is failing him, specifically some form of dementia that is heavily affecting his short-term memory. His neighbor’s daughter, Cherry Li (Jacqueline Chan Pui-Yin), is the only bright spot in his life, but even her upbeat presence is a reminder of Ding’s painful past. Some years before, Ding was babysitting his granddaughter and she got lost, never to be seen again. His daughter refused to speak to him again, so he moved back to his hometown on the border of China and Russia. He bides his time there, waiting to die, living life without joy and with the memory of his granddaughter ever-present in his thoughts.
Cherry’s sweet smile and warm heart does seem to be breaking through Ding’s shame and depression, though, and I got the sense that unhindered she may have helped him come to terms with what happened and forgive himself. Unfortunately for them, Cherry’s father, Li Zheng-Jiu (Andy Lau), is a low-life gambler who owes 250,000 yuan (roughly $37,500) to the despicable, ruthless gangster Choi Dong-Hen (Feng Jia-Yi). He can’t pay, so they force Li to rob a Russian mobster for them… and since this is a movie, you know that ain’t gonna work out well. The repercussions ripple all the way back to Old Ding, causing him to shift his life out of neutral and act for what is most likely the first time since his granddaughter’s disappearance. His memory may be failing him, but his instincts remain as strong as ever.
The Bodyguard is primarily a drama, and it is a wonderful film for Sammo to come back to directing with. His age is obviously a limiting factor in terms of what action he can perform, so focusing on drama (similar to something like Heart of Dragon) and allowing us to develop emotional attachments before ripping open the action works exceptionally well. Sammo’s subtle physical performance endears his character to the audience without many words. He mostly reacts to the talented supporting cast, communicating what we need to know about his character’s life and relationships through his expressive eyes and body language. Jacqueline Chan Pui-Yin also gives a wonderful performance as Ding’s surrogate granddaughter, adding a tenderness that holds the disparate elements of the movie together. Keep your eyes peeled for many cameos, too, the best of which are the old men on the bench: Tsui Hark, Karl Maka and Dean Shek.
Tonally, The Bodyguard jumps around a lot, ranging from heartwarming and sweet, to extremely intense, brutal violence. This will be a hard sell for some viewers, but it’s nothing unusual for Chinese films, and in The Bodyguard it serves a purpose. The broad extremes remind us in quick succession of how the innocence of childhood felt, and how easily and quickly it can be corrupted. I kept thinking about the villains as carefree children, and how they were likely the product of parents similar to Cherry’s father. Childhood is something to be treasured, but without guidance and protection it is easy to slip down the wrong path and not know the way back. In other words, they, too, could be considered “lost children with failed bodyguards.”
In terms of action, The Bodyguard is never going to live up to Sammo’s incredible past efforts, so it’s best to put them out of your mind and consider this film on its own merits. Sammo’s character mostly lets his attackers come to him, at which point he annihilates them by shattering bones and knocking joints out of their sockets. The action is largely shot in close-up to accommodate this (and probably Sammo’s age, too), but the editing is generally fluid enough to keep the action moving without too much disorientation from shifting angles and POVs. Many close-up inserts add wonderful small moments of choreography, as well, such as a particular knife deflection that I had to rewind a couple of times to marvel at.
Sammo’s choice to heighten the action with a lot of digital slo-mo really rubbed me the wrong way, though, as it just looks blurry and draws attention to itself. The instances of true slow-motion work far better, highlighting some big blows and the resulting destruction caused by a dude going through a table/window/whatever’s nearby. But these moments are rare, and the digital slo-mo takes precedence. Some of it might be explained by Ding’s mental state and his disorientation in the moment, but I think that’s more me reaching to explain Sammo’s choices than anything else. It does succeed in making the film look modern, as well as obscuring any imperfections in the actor’s action performances, and honestly that was probably the reasoning behind it. But regardless, the action remains rewarding and exciting; an excellent example of Sammo’s strengths as a performer, choreographer and director.
That’s really what it comes down to with The Bodyguard: how much do you love Sammo Hung? If you are a long-time fan, you’re likely to overlook the film’s more modern action aesthetic because of your love for Sammo. I know I did, and I really enjoyed it. The Bodyguard represents Sammo’s evolution as an artist during his time away from directing. He isn’t interested in repeating himself or providing simple nostalgia (his character is literally losing his memories), he’s built a beautiful, modern film that moves him forward into an age-appropriate role.