‘Let The Bullets Fly’ opens at Facets Multimedia on Friday, March 30th.
Jiang Wen’s Let The Bullets Fly (Rang Zidan Fei) (China, 2010) is a spectacularly entertaining Chinese western. It’s visually impressive, but doesn’t overly rely on spectacular effects and showcase action sequences, although there’s plenty of each. It has a plot full of good guys, bad guys, anti-heroes, femmes fatales, plot twists and double-crosses, but the story’s complexities don’t muddle or overwhelm its larger themes. Wen has taken the basics of the revisionist westerns of the seventies – Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Robert Altman – and appropriated those films’ larger social and political perspectives to agreeably include us in his comedic sense of skepticism about class distinctions, political expediency and whether gunpower and money are mightier than ethics. It’s like a really good feature-length episode of ‘The Wild Wild West,’ which, as you may recall, relied far more on its political-spy-thriller plot ideas and pre-steampunk science than on gunfights, horse chases and bank robberies.
Ma Bangde (Ge You) is a cagey high-class political hustler who has married an opportunistic rich woman (Carina Lau), whom has bought him the governorship of a rural region of China. They’re on their way to Goose Town (yeah, I know, just roll with it…) to meet the local godfather, the powerful crime boss Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat), and get richer by imposing the usual onerous taxes on the peasant population. But their trip is abruptly detoured by the notorious highwayman ‘Pocky’ Zhang (Jiang Wen, the director and co-writer as well) and his gang, who derail the train in order to rob it. The governor’s counselor is killed in the crash, but the governor convinces Zhang that he is the counselor and that it’s the governor who’s been killed. Zhang and the ‘counselor’ then conspire to have Zhang pose as the governor in order to carry on with the fleecing of Goose Town, and they’ll split the proceeds. The wife, of course, is delighted with this arrangement.
What’s pleasantly un-expected is that Zhang turns out to be the most honorable of thieves. A virile, ruggedly-handsome, deep-voiced natural leader, Zhang, in his new role, wants to eschew the usual politics of plundering the defenseless poor, against the ‘counselor’s’ advice, and, instead, get as big a chunk of Huang’s empire as he can finagle; that’s where the real money is. And so begins an impressive chess game between the gentleman-thief and the powerful crime boss.
Jiang Wen is a terrific filmmaker – it’s almost hard to believe this is only his fifth feature. The film is unerringly balanced – comic elements abound, but we always take the battle of strategies seriously; deaths are genuinely troubling, and the battle of wills between Chow Yun-Fat and Jiang Wen is comparable to DeNiro and Pacino in ‘Heat,’ or Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in ‘Grand Illusion’ (although, admittedly in a far less profound context). It’s briskly and efficiently paced, but each scene has its own deliberate, lucid rhythm – nothing is rushed or glossed over. And that’s an impressive cast of real pros – Chow Yun-Fat chews the scenery with malevolent relish, Jiang Wen and Ge You are seasoned veteran Chinese character actors, and the supporting cast is seamlessly superb.
Two caveats: the film is probably, oh, twenty minutes too long (it’s 132 minutes altogether) – some of the missions that Zhang and Huang’s henchmen are sent on get a little too convoluted and repetitive. But the major caveat is that many of the discussions and events are sly allegories and metaphors for the current state of Chinese sociopolitics; unless you’re familiar with that, a fair amount of the proceedings will seem a little surreal to American audiences. It certainly doesn’t interfere with one’s overall enjoyment, but you’ll feel a little at sea from time to time.
Most readers already know that I’m a big fan of these Chinese crowdpleasers, and this one zooms into my Top Ten, along with the works of filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, Tsui Hark, Yuen Wo-Ping and Stephen Chow. Jiang Wen is a filmmaker who’s going to be around for quite a while, and he’s already displayed his chops on a good variety of projects. And, as with most of these films, this one requires the big screen and a dark theater to be properly appreciated. Make some time to see this rewarding, entertaining good-time-at-the-movies.