The movie that "Bodyguards and Assassins" reminds me most of is Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Like the Gibson flick, "B&A" seeks to tell an origin story—instead of a religion, we're looking at the birth of modern China—and sanctify it through bloody martyrdom.
The year is 1906, and we're in Hong Kong. Real-life revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen is expected to visit soon to plot a series of uprisings that will result in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and usher in, as the characters say, a "people's republic." They also call this a democracy—and we even hear a quote from Abraham Lincoln early on. To aid his cause, a small group of men commit themselves to protecting him from an assassination plot, by any means necessary.
I won't spoil the details of how they succeed—if it's a spoiler to you that Sun Yat-Sen doesn't die, then read your history, son—but suffice it to say that there are many intricate fight scenes, and many, many sacrifices made by the good guys. And here's where Gibson comes in: While many bad guys die in the course of events, those deaths are a blur. The pains inflicted on the good guys, meanwhile, are mapped out in painstaking detail: every thrust of the spear, every hook tearing at flesh, every drop of blood spilled—often in slow motion. When a character dies, we're given their obituary on-screen: Name, date of birth, and date of death. It's meant to make you identify with these men, and their cause, and it succeeds.
Adding to this myth-making is the film's treatment of Sun himself: We're not allowed to see his full face in full focus until the last few minutes of the movie. There's something reminiscent of religions that ban the depiction of their gods and prophets in this: Sun Yat-Sen is a man, it turns out, with a face and everything—but he's clearly something more than a man.
I don't want to make too big a deal of this: Certainly our own film industry has given us plenty of "America Eff Yeah!" moments, so it's tough to begrudge the Chinese their own. (Though it plays more subtly than some other Chinese flicks I've seen lately, there's still a latent "foreigners are bad" vibe going on here, though it's understandable given the colonialism the Chinese endured during this time.) And it's certainly effective—I found myself moved a number of times throughout the movie. The film is undeniably entertaining.
The Chinese movie industry, like China itself, is growing bigger and more sophisticated—slowly but surely offering a challenge to Hollywood's domination of the global box office. And movies like "Bodyguards and Assassins" are clearly meant to shape the audience's view—both domestically and abroad—of what China is all about. It's fine to be entertained by "Bodyguards and Assassins." One hopes non-Chinese viewers of the movie take some time to learn what the real modern China is all about, both for good and for bad.