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China and Hong Kong: Bodyguards and Assassins

Bodyguards and Assassins is an action movie released during Christmas in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a patriotic film, it was originally set to release in October for celebrating the 60th year anniversary of PRC but deferred until the end of 2009. In contrast with the Founding of a Republic! which spotlights on national heroes, the movie features on a number of grassroots characters, who know nothing about revolution but choose to sacrifice their lives for their country. The story offers a diverse readings and interpretations on the Chinese history and politics.  

The comment made by Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China, in the movie has been quoted widely on the Internet, it said:

欲求文明之幸福,必经文明之痛苦,而这痛苦,就叫做革命。

If you want to pursue the happiness of civilization, you must first undergo the pains of civilization,and this kind of pain is called revolution.

Sheng Haifang was overwhelmed by the line:

应该说这是我见过的关于革命最好的解读,它让我在某种程度上,终于和“革命”这个词握手言和。我可以厌恶革命,可以反对主义,但是对于革命者,对于为主义而赴死的人,甚至被主义吞噬的人们,我心怀尊重。我今日之所感所知所思所享,无不来自于百年来这些努力去实现臆想中“中国明天”的人们。他们或伟大或浅薄或愚蠢或无私或卑劣或聪明或成功或失败或一代领袖或千古罪人,我可以评判他们,同时心怀某种敬畏与感激。

I should say this is the best interpretation on revolution I have ever seen. It makes me shake hands with the word “revolution” to some extent. I can hate revolution and oppose Marxism, but for revolutionaries, for those who die for, or are even devoured by Marxism, I pay respect to them. What I feel, what I know, what I think and what I enjoy all come from those who strive for China’s tomorrow in the past century. They can be great, shallow, stupid, selfless, despicable, smart, successful or defeated, they can be leaders or sinners of ages, I can judge them, but I am also in awe of them and grateful to them.

However, Sheng also sighed at the fading enthusiasm of the contemporary, and the misuse of the revolutionary vocabularies.

我们已经无法体会到当初那些热情,因为我们失去了那个感知热情的时代环境。革命、民主、自由、主义、共和、共产、大同……都是曾经被用以呼唤理性、现代性、个性、人性与新的时代,同时也这些词也被用以唤起多数人的暴力,用以巩固权力,用以践踏权利与扭曲人性、创造同质化。

We can no longer experience the passion in that age, because we don’t have the environment for feeling that passion. Revolution, democracy, freedom, Marxism, republic, communism, great harmony, these are the words that were once used to awaken rationalism, modernism, individualism, humanity and new age. However, these words are also used to awaken violence and consolidate power, to trample on rights and twist human nature, and to homogenize people.

Qingnianganjiang compared Bodyguards and Assassins with the 60th anniversary tribute The Founding of a Republic in his blog entry “Late Salute”, and pointed out that the political message in the film is deviated from the official ideologue:

《十月围城》。它不会和我讲大道理,它更加不会强迫我接受主旋律的洗脑。我这30年来,实在是受够了,害怕了精神上的洗脑。。。《十月围城》里的日与月,是为了中国未来。欲求文明之幸福,不得不经文明之痛苦。中国求解解放、文明、自由的路,从来是走的辛苦。那群牺牲的人民,我们从来是要用崇敬的眼光去看待他们。不因历史变迁,不因空间改变,更不能因改朝换代而把他们遗忘。

Bodyguards and Assassins won’t preach me big ideas and force me to wash my brain and accept the official ideologue. I’ve suffered enough in the past 30 years and am afraid of brainwashing. People in the movie had to first suffer the pains of civilization in order to pursue the happy future of Chinese civilization. China has walked a painstaking path to liberty and civilization. We should pay respect to those who died on the path and should not forget them due to the changes of ruling power in the history. 

Tubingenmujiang also compared the two movies but had a different reading. The blogger believed that both movies reproduced the same old myth of “Leader comes first” :

在我看来,《十月围城》也是一部神话片——当国家消亡的神话被民族国家的神话所取代时,《十月围城》的骨子里无非是又一部《建国大业》,只不过后者囿于具体指向而主要局限在海峡一隅传播,《十月围城》则把落脚点放在了两岸都能接受的“中华民族最大公约数”那里,明后年就是民国建国百周年纪念,想必《十月围城》剑指金马奖,已是司马昭之心。

In my opinion, Bodyguards and Assassins also tries to create a myth – the myth of a rising nation state. The film, in essence, is another The Founding of a Republic, but the latter targeted at the Mainland China market, while Bodyguards and Assassins created a greatest historical common ground across the Taiwan Straits. As the centenary of the founding of China Republic is approaching, so I suppose Bodyguards and Assassins is aiming at the Golden Horse Awards.

《十月围城》在一个波诡云谲的时代背景里,打造了一出关于救世主的神话。不过陈德森很聪明,他并没有简单的树立一个高、大、全的神主牌位,而是着力打造了从财主到乞丐,从大亨到流氓的牺牲群像,用断片切面的手法较为全面的展现了那个时代的香港风貌。所以,整部《十月围城》看下来,便是一出仁人志士舍生取义“让领导先走”的神话催泪弹。

Bodyguards and Assassins, against the background of a chaotic historical moment, reproduces a myth of a national savior. The director, Chan Tak Sum, is very witty. He did not set up a huge monument for the god-like feature, but focused on the ordinary people (the merchant, beggar, and gangs) who chose to sacrifice for the revolutionary leader. The movie reflects the political and social landscape of old Hong Kong, and wins the tears of common people with the myth of common people's goodwill to “let the leaders go first”.

1 comment

  • Jon

    I strongly disagree with Tubingenmujiang’s interpretation of the “Leader First” mentality. It is true that so many characters give their lives for Dr. Sun, but what is more important than Dr. Sun himself is what he represents. He *is* the leader of the movement in which they believe, but while he carries the mantle of this idea, he, like those who sacrifice themselves, is a part of something greater than himself.

    Let us not forget that Sun’s life was also at risk for the entire first half of the gauntlet. Only through his legitimate risk was there hope for what so many of them had come to believe in.

    And, c’mon, let’s be honest: This is the most subversive “big” movie to come out of China in years. I can only wonder what made it on to the cutting room floor, and just how livid this is going to make certain individuals on the Mainland.

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