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2010 New York Asian Film Festival: melodrama perfected

With its lavish, sumptuous production design and attention-grabbing camerawork “Bodyguards and Assassins,” which makes its New York debut at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is quintessential martial arts eye candy. As broadly populist as any western style action flick, this 2009 blockbuster – which boasts “more Hong Kong Film Awards than any movie in history” – follows a makeshift team of bodyguards who put their lives on the line at the turn of the last century to prevent the assassination of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary leader arriving in the British colony to plan the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty.

While several of the characters are based on historical figures any other nods to reality are buried beneath the film’s big dramatic moments and soaring score, its swords fights, arrow attacks and kung fu smack-downs. Which is just fine.

After all, who needs subtlety when you’ve got a beggar who fights with an iron fan, and a runaway rickshaw that flies down steps in a scene reminiscent of the baby carriage centerpiece in “The Untouchables”?

And the star-studded cast, capable actors all, knows this. While there are some terrific nuanced performances – most especially from Wang Xueqi in the Ben Kingsley role of the businessman who after his newspaper is shut down goes from discreetly providing financial aid to the cause to actively assembling the bodyguards – they take a backseat to suspenseful sequences like the roller coaster of a battle that occurs as the team is picked off one by one delivering the good doctor to his destination.

Interestingly, Asian filmmakers and actors have always been smarter than us westerners when it comes to embracing simple melodramatic scripts. So many of our action flicks come off as clunkers because of a silly insistence on meshing gravity-defying fights with sincerity. (Marc Forster, I’m talking to you.) With a film like “Bodyguards and Assassins” the emphasis is on the beautiful ballet of corporeal combat as opposed to its blood and gore.

Spirit trumps substance, which makes for an ever more thrilling ride.

If you’re in the market for something less grand and more outrageous there’s “Power Kids,” part of the Midnights @ IFC program and a heck of a lot of cheesy fun. Like a politically incorrect Nickelodeon pilot, the film follows a Bangkok band of Little Rascals with killer muay Thai skills who must defeat the camouflaged terrorist commandoes (led by an empathetic girl with a vicious roundhouse kick) that have commandeered the hospital where the heart to be transplanted into the youngest sickly street urchin is being stored. (“He’s been sleeping like vegetables,” the doctor gravely explains of the comatose boy whose heart is to be removed.)

The comic book plot is elevated by the fact that these underage superheroes possess real human martial arts powers. The fight sequences play out like flying ballet, especially the last battle where the kids take on the big baddie in a flurry of jumping knees and elbows, fluid front and back kicks.

Indeed, remove the predatory paparazzi snapping pictures as the youngsters are thrown through windows, the use of caning as punishment, and a scene in which the older brother of the tyke awaiting the transplant fights while holding a box containing the human heart, and one can easily see an American remake. Someone call The Rock.