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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Current Cinema - Sammo Hung returns front and centre in THE BODYGUARD

What becomes of aging ‘Central Security Bureau’ agents, men who are trained to act violently upon their instincts in an instant, may be similar to what happens to aging wuxia movie stars. Neither can put on the moves and eventually their bosses and their audiences lose interest and tolerance.  In the case of the mid-60s aged Ding (Sammo Hung) in Hung’s new film The Bodyguard (China, 2016), the pasture he’s put out to, is a small city on the China Russian border where he’s living a quiet life in a small rented house owned by an attractively aging Korean widow. She has a son in the police force.  Ding used to be a star for the Bureau. His legendary expertise and reputation is told in an animated sequence near the start of the movie. 
Hung has been working in movies since he was a child and as a most detailed biography on Wikipedia explains he has worked with and assisted the best in the business as well as making his own individual way. Hung has many credits as a director but dozens more as the ‘action director’ on Hong Kong movies. But there's much similarity between Hung and his alter ego Ding. Perhaps even a franchise beckons.

Wikipedia’s flat recitation lacks sparkle and selectivity. Which is where David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the art of entertainment (Harvard University Press, 2000 and, second edition, Irvington Way Institute Press, 2011) comes into play. [1] The first key reference to Sammo Hung’s work and his influence comes via a compare and contrast exercise between Bruce Lee and his successor Jackie Chan. Bordwell notes:  Aiming at winning real fights, Bruce Lee saw no reason to learn acrobatics. When a scene demanded  leaps and tumbles, he used a double. By contrast, Chan and his school “brothers” Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung were brilliant acrobats. They and other graduates of the Opera Institute sparked a trend toward flashy stunts in the kung-fu films of the late 1970s. Hung became one of the industry’s top fight choreographers and began to give Golden Harvest’s kung-fu films swift fighting, hairbreadth timing, and bursts of comedy. Yuen Woo-ping, son of an expert fight choreographer, developed a comparable style in directing Snake and Drunken Master, and it suited Chan perfectly.

Which is interesting when one is contemplating The Bodyguard. But first I think it’s fair to say, though I can only invite experts to argue, that Hung, like Ding, has not been doing much in recent years.  The Bodyguard thus has a similar feel to a couple of Howard Hawks’ last films El Dorado  and Rio Lobo. Age catches up with formerly top of the heap violent men.

But it sometimes happens that their moral code is offended and they feel compelled to take up battle once again. About half way through The Bodyguard, three young punks burst into Ding’s house seeking to obtain a bag of stolen jewellery. (Yep folks, the McGuffin is only a bag of stolen jewels, notwithstanding the setting on the border and all the possible threats to international order that might be summoned up.) We get the first glimpse of Ding’s martial arts skill when he grabs the clenched fist of an opponent and crunches it. The pain is electric for both victim and spectator and represented as such by a quick shot of the villain’s arm with the sinews inside it turning a spidery neon blue. Very smart effect. Ding fights off two, breaking arms in the process and the third high tails it out of the place. It's intended to show that Ding still has it, a preview of his fearlessness and his capacity to fight notwithstanding age, weight and dementia all kicking in. That ‘swift fighting, hairbreadth timing, and bursts of comedy’ mentioned by Bordwell still serve both the film-maker and his character.

The somewhat perfunctory plot (stolen jewels a moppet separated from her family and retrieved and forawhile made safe by Ding, Russian gangsters and a guest star appearance by Andy Lau) all propel things towards a confrontation between ,Ding and a Chinese gangster played with a lot of villainous zest by Xuebing Wang. The second fight scene, and the film’s set piece, is a long one. Ding shows up in the gangster’s lair and first stares him down and then has him all over the shop with a couple of love taps. This is the signal for the boss’s team of followers to pull out their knives and seek to demolish Ding. Here the bone-crunching resumes, as does the neon x-ray effect signifying breakages.Needless to say the soundtrack materially assists in conveying the impression of massive physical mayhem. The final moment, with the out of breath Ding demonstrating skills assumed long lost involves him in hoisting an opponent in a 270 degree tumble that flattens both. It is spectacular though I suspect that Sammo Hung was doubled for the moment.  By the end, when you add in the three Russian interlopers, there are probably 20 bodies lying round in various stages of illness or death.

Needless to say there is much sentiment at the end as Ding takes his place with three old timers on a bench (one of them is played by Tsui Hark affecting a role where his legs have been amputated below the knee). Ultimately though, The Bodyguard is quite reflective. Ding’s memory is fading along with his physical well-being but his stern moral code remains and prevails. Nice really.

[1] The later version is available for direct download if you go to David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson’s  website  There, David explains what has happened with the second edition thus: "Planet Hong Kong was published in 2000. At some point in 2008, Harvard University Press took the book out of print, a decision I learned about in spring of 2009. The story is here. After finishing other writing commitments, I settled down to revising the book in August of 2010.

"The result, a second edition, is now available as a pdf-based e-book for purchase on this page. The price is $15, and the PayPal Buy button is nearby. Since some people have asked, I should say that you don't have to have a PayPal account to purchase it. PayPal accepts credit card payments without your opening an account.

"The new edition has replaced nearly all the original black-and-white illustrations with color ones, and has added several dozen new stills. The new parts of the text amount to some 40,000 words, with an updated list of further reading."

Go for it.

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