The New York Asian Film Festival has come and gone, leaving so much carnage and tonal whiplash in its wake. This being the fifteenth anniversary, it’s safe to assume they felt a certain amount of pressure to not only build on the glories of the past (my 2015 experience was one of the highlights of that year), but to top them.
And if you’re going to take on such a lofty goal, porting in the first new Sammo Hung film in almost 20 years is a pretty good start.
If you don’t know who Sammo Hung is, a brief primer:
Yeah. He’s that guy.
While he’s acted in plenty of films since then, Hung hasn’t actually been behind the camera since 1997’s Mr. Nice Guy. Which… was no one’s finest hour. But it was still a lot of fun, and as much as films have gotten better or worse since then (I’ll leave y’all to debate which on the proverbial message boards), it certainly seems like there’s just not enough fun to go around these days. So, with that in mind, let’s find out what we’re in for this time around, story-wise:
Sammo Hung plays Ding, a retired Central Security Bureau member estranged from his family after his granddaughter disappeared on his watch (all of which is explained via a cute and unexpected animated intro). Suffering from a rapidly advancing form of dementia, he lives a quiet life on the Chinese-Russian border. He strikes up a friendship with Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), a precocious young neighbor. But when Cherry’s abusive, gambling addicted father (an extended cameo by Andy Lau) finds himself in debt to the mob, the possibility that Cherry will become collateral damage prompts Ding to rise up and put foot to ass to set things right.
So… dementia? Abusive parents? A missing granddaughter?
Well, it’s possible that fun might be a relative term this time around…
I’m being facetious, of course. This is a Hong Kong movie! When has the plot ever dictated the tone in a Hong Kong movie? Hell, when has anything every dictated the tone from SCENE to SCENE in a Hong Kong movie? And good heavens, when has that EVER been the point?
To wit: though every year of the festival is inevitably going to be its own thing, and as much as I enjoyed a wide selection of the films I saw this year, I must admit I was slightly disappointed in the lack of visceral chop socky fare on display this year. Which, granted, is an unfair complaint to make – boiling the whole of Asian cinema down to awesome, kinetic violence is reductive, and perhaps more than a little insulting.
But, counterpoint: sometimes you just wanna see motherfuckers getting knocked the fuck out.
In My Beloved Bodyguard, motherfuckers do in fact, get knocked the fuck out.
And it is grand.
Stylistically, My Beloved Bodyguard has a modern sheen. But past the slick surface, this is 100% pure old school Hong Kong action melodrama. As a director, Hung’s films have often mixed bone crunching violence (taken quite literally here) and sentimental, borderline maudlin drama, with a sideline in broad, goofy slapstick comedy. It’s the sort of tonal whiplash that fans of classical Hong Kong cinema have come to expect. But the balance here is far more effectively calibrated than in previous efforts.
Sincerity goes a long way, and it helps that Hung really means it with the emotional content. For a lot of action filmmakers (and let’s face it, fans), the attempts at character are the vegetables we have to eat in order to get to the delicious, delicious cake that is dudes getting repeatedly kicked in the face. But Hung is just as invested in the drama as the action, which goes a long way in this case.
There’s a lot of charm in the moments where Ding and Cherry go out fishing, or when Ding interacts with a trio of fellow oldsters, holding court outside the general store (in cameos by Tsui Hark, Dean Shek, and Karl Maka, and yes I’m very impressed with myself for having recognized them, thank you for asking). There’s a pronounced sweetness in the fumbling attempts at romance his lovesick landlady Miss Park (Qinqin Li, deeply funny), and genuine melancholy in the moments where Ding reckons with his past mistakes and tries to connect with his estranged daughter. All of that lends a humanity that probably wasn’t fully necessary, but feels very welcome.
The sum total of all the effort put into the drama aspect is that when the action comes, it hits even harder.
And yes, it’s plain to see that Sammo Hung has lost a step. For the love of God, the man is well over sixty years old. I think it’s safe to cut him a little slack in that regard. Mainly because even if he’s slowed down, he’s clearly still got some moves.
When the violence comes, it is brutal, and despite some janky editing tricks, well worth the wait. The fight scenes may overall pale in comparison to something like The Raid, but they’re brutally efficient in their own way. And being of an old school flavor that’s all but lost, My Beloved Bodyguard recognizes the benefits of proper escalation: the film builds to its fights.
After doing an appropriate buildup to the moment where Ding unleashes his long dormant skills, each battle in the film goes just a little bit further than the one before, culminating in the final fight, where Ding finds himself taking on both the Chinese mob and the Russians, all of whom are trying to kill one another with everything they’ve got. And a special shout out to Tomer Oz, who actually manages to upstage Hung by fighting like a damned monster while never once losing his look of utter confusion that he’s being taken apart by some old, fat Chinese dude.
My Beloved Bodyguard isn’t a perfect film. It has all the flaws of old school Hong Kong movies, and the more modern directorial touches may alienate some of the purists. So in that sense, it may not be up to the standards of a more demanding action movie audience. But motherfuckers definitely get knocked the fuck out. And sometimes, that’s all you need to see…