Would you like to see Donnie Yen make a horse disappear?
Class is out, but Professor Yang is still talking to enraptured students. He is talking about the origins of the word “Democracy” and what it means in a modern political setting. Yang mentions Lincoln’s quote about a people’s government (you know the one) and states that that represents the ideals of the future China that he believes in: a people’s republic. Ahem. A student asks if they will ever see that day. He replies that he knows that that day will come. And while he may not live to see it, the students will.
And just like that Professor Yang gets shot in the head. His terrified students rush him down to the streets below and start tussling with the cops who show up.
This was Yang Qu-yun, former leader of the Revive China Society. As a British colony, Hong Kong had been a haven for dissidents and revolutionaries against China’s Qing Dynasty, until that day. The movie states that his murder on the 1st of October 1st, 1901, was the first political assassination in Hong Kong’s history. I am not sure if that is true, but that Wikipedia article says that he died on the 10th of January, so all bets are off.
Wait a minute. It DOES say January 10th! Goddamn translator, we are not even four minutes in.
It is 1906. Dissident leader Sun Yat-sen or Sun Wen, left Tokyo for Hong Kong. Word reaches Beijing and the Princess Dowager demands that he not leave Hong Kong alive.
Yan Xia-guo, who was the one who killed Professor Yang, returns to Hong Kong, lying to the border guard about his reasons for coming.
One of Yan’s underlings approaches a cop named Shen Chong-yang, who apparently, is a paid agent. He instructs the cop to follow Chen Xiao-bai, former Hong Kong Chair of the United League of China.
In plainclothes, Chong-yang trails Chen as he makes his way through the street. Chen may suspect that he is being followed, but I don’t think that he actually catches sight of the Chong-yang.
Li Yu-tang is getting ready for a big gathering in his…parlor. His son, Chong-guang, has been accepted into Yale. Yutang tells his son that he should start dressing in Western suits. He then goes downstairs where everyone stands up to congratulate him…but, it was his son who got accepted, not him. Chen arrives…a little late.
As the celebration takes place inside for the rich people of Hong Kong, a servant named A-si is doling out rice to the poor outside. A…really tall guy named Wang Fu-ming, grabs six bags at once. A-si tries to stop him, but Fu-ming reasons that A-si had said that people could take what they could grab in one hand. Perhaps because the guy is huge, A-si lets him take the bags. Fu-ming does thank him and A-si smiles back. Everything is good.
Chong-guang had been awkward all evening, but his face lights up when he sees Chen. He runs over to show him his acceptance…certificate. Chen says that his queue is an odd match for the suit. He then gives him a book. In English. By Sun Wen.
Chen sees Yu-tang and pulls him aside to tell him that Sun Wen is coming. Yu-tang asks how much money Chen needs this time, which is not the response that Chen was hoping for. He tells Yu-tang that Sun Wen is meeting with the United League delegates from the 13 provinces in order to unite the factions launch a mass rebellion during the next few years. And Yu-tang will be a part of it. Yu-tang merely asks again how much money Chen wants. Three thousand Hong Kong dollars. Yu-tang is not happy about that amount.
Yu-tang would probably be less happy if he had known that Chong-yang had snuck into the venue and has been listening to the entire conversation. Neither he nor Chen sees the cop, but Yu-tang’s current wife Yue-ru noticed him. He tries to flee through her daughter’s room and jumps out the window. He drops several coins and stops to pick them up. Yue-ru sees him, but she merely closes the window.
With Chong-yang still following him, Chen makes his way to Gao Sheng Theater, where he meets with a former general named Fan Tian. He tells Fan Tian that Sun Wen will arrive on the 15th of October at 9:00 AM. Fan Tian will be his only defense in Hong Kong from the Qing court. Fan Tian says that he needs to know how many assassins will be coming for Sun Wen who will be leading them. Chen tells him that he will find out. Fan Tian says that he has been waiting for this day, ever since the Qing massacred his soldiers.
Fan Tian addresses the remainder of his troops, who are disguised as a theater troupe. In four days, they will engage in a fight to the death. The men cheer. But then his daughter, Fan Hong, shows up and…um…seems to think that this fight is just a prelude to them running away for the sixteenth time in six years.
Yan address around two or three dozen men in Kowloon Walled City, the last Chinese enclave in British-ruled Hong Kong. He tells them that, after years of disgrace and humiliation, they are finally able to fight for their country, for the empire. They drink to the death of the traitor. Yan then meets with Chong-yang, who tells him where Chen had gone. Yan gives him his money, saying that he hears that Chong-yang likes to gamble. He calls gambling a passion, and that he likes people with passion. Chong-yang says that he will do anything as long as he gets paid.
And, sure enough, Chong-yang stays up all night blowing his earnings in a gambling den; one much less fancy than Yu-tang’s parlor.
The ladies of the Li family are ready for breakfast, but Yi-tang cares only that his son is absent, preferring to eat in his study. And since Yi-tang is too upset over this to eat, no one else can start eating.
A-si warns Chong-guang that his father is coming, so Chong-guang puts away his breakfast, and switches out switches out the book that Chen had given him with a school book just as Yi-tang arrives. Yi-tang doesn’t say much; mostly that tomorrow is the birthday of Chong-guang’s late mother and something about his face. Oops. The boy had a grain of rice on his face.
A-si is taking Yu-tang through the city to his newspaper offices. Yu-tang notices that A-si is carrying something with writing on it. Is He learning to read? A-si says that Chong-guang had been teaching him words, and he got up to 53 words before his own studies took priority. Yu-tang says that he will ask Tang Jiu to find a teacher for A-si. Who is Tang Jiu? Well, whatever. A-si thanks Yu-tang.
Along the journey, A-si rings the rickshaw bell to get the attention of a woman in a photography shop. Then Yu-tang gives him a coin so he can toss it to an unhoused man named Master Liu. It is said that Master Liu had squandered his family fortune for a woman and now he spends his money on opium. Uh…okay.
A-si and Yu-tang arrive at the office to find a group of protesters from the Chinese United League tussling with police offers. Yu-tang notices Chong-guang throwing flyers off of the stairway and manages to make his way through the scrum to him. He orders Chong-guang to go home, but Chong-guang shouts out that he is not a coward. Yu-tang tries to strike Chong-guang, but A-si gets in between them, getting hit instead. Yu-tang accuses A-si of turning against him. Chong-guang runs off and the crowd prevents Yu-tang from following.
Yu-tang goes inside the building and sees Cheng there. He scolds Cheng for luring his only son into the rebel movement and giving him radical books. He had said that he would provide money for Cheng to waste however he wanted, and not get involved otherwise. But getting Chong-guang involved is a step too far. Chong-guang will be a businessman like him, not a target for the assassins whom Cheng had neglected to mention earlier. And that is that. Cheng counters that Yu-tang became a rebel the moment he donated a cent to the cause. When he hired Cheng to be Chong-guang’s teacher. No one had forced Yu-tang to do that. And no one forced his son either. Yu-tang says that he doesn’t care about his own fate; he is an old man. But his son? No.
Chong-yang finally returns home and gets accosted by two of Yan’s men, who had been waiting there all night. Oh, is Donnie Yen about to kick some…no. Nevermind. Instead, he says that no police will be at the theater tonight. Did he ensure that back at the gambling den?
Chen runs over to Fan Tian at the theater to tell him that Yan Xiao-guo is leading the assassins and is currently at the Walled City. Fan Tian realizes that it is too late. He pulls Chen over to Fan Hong and tells her to protect Chen.
And just like that, dozens of men crash through the ceiling windows, throwing acid on everyone. Fan Tain pushes Chen away and tells him to run. And then…um…he knocks out his own daughter and hides her outside. I thought that he had told her to protect Chen. Perhaps he was actually addressing his men? In any case, Fan Tian and his men put up a valiant fight, but they are eventually all slaughtered and Chen is captured.
When Fan Hong wakes up, it is all over. The police (including Chong-yang) have arrived and have taken the bodies outside. They prevent Fan Hong from getting close until she says that her father may be among the dead. And he is. Meanwhile, Yu-tang and A-si arrive. They find what looks to be Chen’s pen, but he is not there.
Yu-tang goes back to his workplace, where he finds a letter that Chen had left for him. Chen apologizes for upsetting him earlier that day, but insists that Sun Wen must be protected, as the future of China depends on him. If anything happens to Chen, then he asks that Yu-tang take up the cause. Yu-tang falls asleep at his desk.
And gets woken up by the cops. Chief of Police Shi Mi-fu has ordered the newspaper be shut down for publishing propaganda, inciting civil unrest, and disturbing the peace. Yu-tang had considered Shi to be a friend, so this is like a betrayal. There is, of course, a commotion, until Shi shows up. Yu-tang demands to know what is going on. Shi says that he had warned Yu-tang against meddling; that his British superiors had told him to avoid interfering with the fight between Sun and the Qing court. Yu-tang doesn’t deny that his newspaper was doing that, but he reminds Shi that over 30 people were killed last night in that theater attack on his watch. Shi tells his men to shut down the paper and arrest anyone who resists.
I am not sure if the cops actually shut down the place. Even with the staff beaten and machines damaged, they managed to print out a paper saying that Sun Wen will be arriving on the 15th and the local government has intervened. He addresses his staff, saying that the revolution will start here and they are all part of it. Chong-guang arrives just as Yu-tang accepts leadership of Sun’s defense.
Yu-tang goes to see Master Liu. He gives Liu a fan, a metal bladed fan, which was a Liu family heirloom. Yu-tang tells him that someone is coming in two days and needs protection. Liu is not having it. Instead, he brings up having fallen for the wrong woman. Li says that Liu could have picked anyone but his father’s woman. This movie has a lot of characters with a lot of backstories and some of those backstories are not necessary.
Yu-tang and A-si go to see Fu-ming, who is selling stinky tofu. A-si…let’s say does not make the best first impression. But Fu-ming recognizes Yu-tang from earlier, saying that he had put on a good show telling off the cops. He offers to fight for Yu-tang if he needs it. Yu-tang asks if he can do so in two days. Fu-ming asks who he is to fight. The British? Yu-tang doesn’t say no, simply saying the bad guys. That is good enough for Fu-ming.
Chong-yang is walking down the street and eating a fruit for when he notices Yue-ri. And she notices him. He tries to casually walk away without paying for the fruit when Yue-ri catches up to him. She asks why he snuck into her house the other day. When he doesn’t answer, she reminds him that the two of them had broken up long ago. And she tells him to leave her family alone. Oh, a bit of a coincidence there.
A-si volunteers to take part in the fight, saying that he grew up in the streets. Yu-tang warns him that it will be dangerous, but A-si says that he just wants to the master to be safe. Uh…okay. A-si asks only that Yu-tang help him propose to the photographer’s daughter afterwards. What?? Yu-tang agrees. And actually, tells A-si to turn around so that they can see the photographer now. Huh?
So, Yu-tang goes to talk up A-si for the photographer, who is unsure about the arrangement. His daughter, A-chun, seems…maybe happy about the proposal? Also, she walks very slowly. I am not sure if that is due to her having bound feet or issues with her knees, but it seems like the latter is more likely. That distracts Yu-tang, who may have been hoping for another servant, but it seems like there is an agreement made, and they took a family portrait.
At mealtime, Chong-guang tries to pour tea for his father, I guess as a peace offering. He spills some due to…uh…the script making him do so. But Yu-tang wipes it away and even gives Chong-guang his cup. After they drink, Yu-tang asks Chong-guang to stay home for the next few days. Chong-guang nods and gives a grunt that implies a yes, without saying yes. That’s good enough for Yut-tang. So, time to eat.
Remember Chen? Well, he is alive, but a prisoner of Yan. And…Yan was a former student of Chen’s? Jesus. Yan brings Chen some food and seems to genuinely believe that he can maintain their previous relationship in the circumstances, but Chen immediately tells him otherwise. He asks Chen what the foreigners have brought the Chinese other than war, suffering, disgrace, and humiliation. Chen responds that the foreigners have brought the belief that all are born equal. In China, some can be born emperors and into privilege while others into slavery. They need to overturn the Mandate of Heaven and establish a democratic republic. Yan disagrees, saying that his Western education merely taught him how evil and greedy the foreigners are; that meetings and protests will not save China; and that being a teacher will not bring Chen greatness. Chen tries to stab Yan with the meal knife, but Yan merely grabs the blade and holds it until Chen lets go. Yan calls Chen weak and says that the revolution will doom China.
Fan Hong goes to see Yu-tang. She asks for 100 silver coins to bury her father and his men. He has someone get the money. She also says that she is hungry, so he has some food made for her. She says that she wants to see the friend who got her father killed. Yu-tang says that that friend had gone to her father for help, but disappeared during the attack. Fan Hong offers to take her father’s place.
The gang has assembled. Yu-tang. His staff. A-si and some of his rickshaw associates. Fan Hong. Fu-ming. The plan is very involved and I am glossing over details, but the important part is that Sun Wen is going along Queen’s Road, where a bunch of vacant properties were recently leased by unknown parties. So, they will have to move through there quickly. I don’t suppose that they can take another route to where they are going, but whatever. Indeed, we see that Shi’s English boss tells him to make sure that cops steer clear of Queen’s Road and beyond.
A-si’s buddies play in the water at the beach while he hangs out with A-chun. She asks if he knows who he is protecting tomorrow. He doesn’t, but says that he only wants to make master happy. He does know that the guy wrote the book in his rickshaw. He gives it to A-chun and asks her to read it. So, she does.
A-si and his friends go to see Fan Hong and Fu-ming. A-si want them both to come to his wedding, but they have other plans. Fu-ming is going to return to his Shaolin temple while Fan Hong is taking her father’s ashes back to their home village and stay there forever. At least they can eat together for one last time. Yu-tang observes them, unsure how things will fare tomorrow. He receives a package from Shi…a pistol?
Yu-tang goes to see Master Liu again. Liu is still haunted by his actions that destroyed his family. He asks if tomorrow will be worth it. In any case, Liu accepts, pretty much saying that success or death will set him free.
Yue-ri goes to see Chong-yang. She asks for his help and he says that she will have to pay. She asks him to protect her husband. He demands that she leave, and she asks him to do something worthwhile for once in his life. She says that she had stuck with him for eight years without asking for anything as he gambled and gambled. She had accepted her fate. But then she got pregnant and did not want her child to suffer the same fate. She needed to find a husband who would be a good father.
Yue-ri has Chong-yang look at the girl. She asks what she should tell her daughter about her real father when she grows up.
So…first question. Is this movie based on a true story? Eh…I don’t know. The biographies of Sun Yat-sen that I have seen do not really mention some momentous trip to Hong Kong in 1906. It is mentioned that he traveled around the world to raise funds during the first half of 1906, but stayed in Japan in the second half. The webpage for Hong Kong’s Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail does not mention anything going on in 1906. So…probably not. But, hey. More freedom for the storytellers to tell whatever story they want. And there is a lot of it. Also, promotional material had said the events took place in 1905. I am moving on.
I will admit that I knew very little about this movie going in. And when Donnie Yen showed up, I figured that it would focus on him kicking ass and…sort…of? There are a few opportunities for him to get into fights, but the only time that he displays much athleticism early on is to climb a tree. As you can see from the synopsis, the movie may be about a mission to protect Sun Yat-sen from Qing assassins while he is in Hong Kong, but the movie takes…a long time to get there. We are well over halfway through before Sun’s visit and that whole segment takes about an hour. Could the movie have been edited down from its nearly 139-minute runtime? Absolutely…yeah.
The action scenes are…well, I enjoyed them. Sometimes I kind of lost what was going on, but worked it out eventually. I have seen complaints about extreme closeups and…well, I am not a big connoisseur of martial arts movies, so I either tend to not notice those things or to be fine with them. It was fun. I don’t have much to say about them beyond that.
For a movie with mainstream ambitions, it has a bit of a daring conceit. Instead of doling out action scenes throughout the movie, it backloads almost all of them. The result is kind of a rising tension, not really about whether the mission will succeed. I mean, we know that Sun Yat-sen lives until 1925 and the fate of China…well…is how it is. The tension is about whether the characters whom we know will survive.
The results of the setup are kind of a mixed bag. The movie is an ensemble cast to be sure. And as long as the setup is, it is long enough for the audience to get a good grasp of only a few of characters. That is fine, but the movie sometimes stretches its limits.
If there could be said to be a main character, then I suppose that it would be Yu-tang. He is the big shot money man of Hong Kong. He appears to think that politics are beneath him, which is why he can hire out outright revolutionary to teach his son while also being friendly with the Chief of Police. His prior relationship with both Chen and Shi could have been fleshed out a little more, especially with Shi. And it is unclear how much he knew was going on with his son, let alone his business. But, at least he stepped up when he had to, if only for a moment. Well, okay, he is not necessarily neutral to the revolution; he is okay with it, but he just wants his son to not be involved. Mostly because, Chong-guang is his only son, who was born when he was forty. So, all of his efforts are to make sure that his son survives and thrives. His daughters? Pfft.
Chen and Chong-guang are fine for what they are: true believers. The same could be said regarding Fan Tian. Of course, Fan Tian gets much less screentime than may have been implied before he is killed to raise the stakes. So, who is left? Well, there is Fan Tian’s daughter, Fan Hong. Her introduction is rather awkward, with her suddenly spouting off exposition. I provided what I thought was the context for it, but it was mostly a guess, because the movie or subtitles make it seem to come out of nowhere. The backstory with her, her father, and his soldiers could have been presented in a more subtle manner. Or at least a more casual manner, like with Fu-ming, who brings up having been a Shaolin monk while trying (and failing) to bond with Fan Tian. By contrast, Master Liu gets the worst of it. He probably has more exposition to his character than actual screentime, and that backstory is the worst. Why even include him? He is basically just a worse version of Chong-yang. A-si is perhaps the most likeable character of the lot, though the subplot with A-chun kind of comes out of nowhere and his…decisions at certain points are somewhat puzzling.
So, why does everyone want to protect Sun Yat-sen? Well…they don’t really. Chen and Chong-guang do, of course. The rest are a little less clear with their motives. Some of them don’t even know who this person they are supposed to defend is. Yu-tang himself may not fully believe in the revolution, but he does not want to see the people under him go fight for a hopeless cause. And if they are not going to avoid the fight, then he is going to help them. Fan Hong just wants to do right by her father. Fu-ming wants to finally get to fight…anyone. Master Liu (sigh) wants some form of freedom from his demons. Chong-yang wants to be worthy of the daughter whom he did not know he had. A-si just wants to defend his master…whether that means Yu-tang or Chong-guang is not always clear. For a movie that talks about equality and all that, it is a bit odd that one of the main heroes is so so so happily subservient.
Oh, that’s right. Democracy. Characters in the movie talk about democracy and all of that…at least the intellectuals. I am not sure how much of that filters down to the masses, though A-si does get a good helping of Sun’s words when A-chun reads from the book. It is difficult for me to say how serious the movie is about such a topic. This movie was released in late 2009, when the PRC’s rule over the Hong Kong film industry was…kind of but not really. One could sort of interpret the movie as being almost a call for democracy in Hong Kong against encroachment from the Mainland. Again, I don’t know. I mean, is not present-day China a people’s democratic republic? Ahem…
What is also interesting is the acknowledgment of its foreign origin, from its Greek etymology to its American experiment. Additionally, the movie has to acknowledge that the democracy movement in China was actually founded in Japan. That appears to be a sticking point for Yan. I don’t know the narrative reasoning to have Yan be Chen’s former student, but maybe that connection was why he was sent. While he is obviously the antagonist in the story, I do like that he is not just some mustache-twirling bad guy. He is just trying to do what he feels is best for China. Now, sure, what he feels is based mostly on virulent xenophobia that overlooks the failures of the Qing court, but it is at least a selfless passion at a level similar to Chen and Chong-guang. He is wrong, but he is a true believer, not simply a cruel psychopath. And let’s not pretend that the “foreigners” were all that great here. There is not much depiction of Hong Kong’s British overlords in this movie, but…they are hardly seen as benevolent. The conflict between Yan and Chen is basically over the soul of China. What is it? Is it its traditions and its culture? Or is it its ability to have a place in the modern world? Is it its leaders or its people? Nearly thirteen years after the release of this movie, the answer seems to be…ambiguous.
Speaking of leaders, Sun Yat-sen. The movie treats him like a savior in a mortal man’s body. He will save China as long as the people keep him alive. Sure. The way that the movie is structured, we don’t hear from him until nearly halfway through the movie, and then we don’t even get a glimpse of him until over halfway through when the big day comes. And then even then, we don’t see his face for around twenty minutes. When his face is finally revealed, he is just…erm…some guy. Do you recognize this guy? I have seen him in things, but heck if I could remember him. Up to that point, he had a fourteen year career, but the first four of those were in a cartoon. I don’t know if it was a deliberate choice to have him be a less famous actor than, say, Andy Lau. Maybe? I guess that it is because the movie is not really about him, but the power given to him by his supporters and his enemies. What he means to them and what they will do for or against him.
The film’s Wikipedia page does not mention the production, but this movie apparently had a pretty difficult one. I don’t know the details, so I won’t go into them, but I wonder if the various issues are the reason for all of the seams in the film. Was the scale too big? Did the six writers disagree about what kind of story the movie was telling? Did the PRC meddle in the production? I don’t know. The end product is…rather flawed, but not in a way that it hilariously crumbled in on itself like in Helios. It holds up. It could have used another go-round in the script and editing in post-production, but it works.
It’s good entertainment.
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