This 2010 China-Hong Kong co-production finally makes it to Australia on DVD, which is surprising considering it was China’s highest grossing film for that year, a title it still holds despite tough opposition from the recent Christmas releases of Zhang Yimou’s wartime drama The Flowers of War and Tsui Hark’s 3D fest Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.
Let The Bullets Fly’s distribution history outside China was also worrying: it couldn’t find a distributor in Australia on its release and it was rejected by the Melbourne and Sydney International Film Festivals in 2011. But my concerns turned out to be completely unfounded when late last year at the Fantastic Asian Film Festival in Melbourne, I finally caught up with Let The Bullets Fly. And what an enjoyable darkly comic romp it was! A big budget all-star cast from a director who is now nudging superstar status in China.
The opening title reads: “1920 — The age of warlords.” China is a country riven by banditry, from small groups of marauding robbers to corrupt ex-military officers controlling provinces. The film begins with a bandit gang attacking a train which is taking the newly appointed Governor Ma (Ge You) to his new posting, a large rural city named Goosetown. The robbers are led by “Pocky” Zhang (Jiang Wen), an ex-soldier who sees himself as a gangster on the make. The only survivors of the assault are the Governor and his wife (Carina Lau).
Zhang hatches a plan to take the place of the Governor and in the shortest time possible gouge as much money as he can using his high official rank. Governor Ma pleads for his life and offers to help the gang leader as an assistant… showing him the ropes. Ma’s display of craven cowardice and deathbed honesty appeals to Zhang and he allows Tang (who had been impersonating the Governor) to live. Soon, Zhang and his entourage are on the road to Goosetown.
On their arrival, Zhang finds himself up against Boss Huang (Chow Yun-Fat), the local warlord, who, with his six sons, controls the city and runs an opium smuggling business. The two leaders face off from a distance and plot their moves accordingly. Tang is in his element here and to survive and profit he must pick the winning side, which is not always the one he looks to be helping. If this all sounds a bit familiar, you’re right — the opening twenty minutes seem to be channeling Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite with the train robbery and A Fistful of Dollars with Tang playing one criminal gang off against the other.
But this all changes when a member of Zhang’s gang, literally, uncovers the long-lost Justice Drum, which in turn leads to a brutal death in Boss Huang’s family. A blood feud is announced and the scene is set for the victor to take all.
It’s from here Let The Bullets Fly really takes off and becomes a battle of wits with an escalating series of odd and occasionally violent manoeuvres.
It’s also a real delight to hear how dialogue-driven this film is and how much fun these passages often are, from the crawling and conniving of Tang, to Huang’s explaining of his Machevalian plans to his sons. And each actor remains completely in character — there’s no Wong Jing-like mugging to the camera. The excellent English subtitling helps the movie immensely and is the latest example of just how good English subtitles in Mandarin language movies have become.
Well known mainland actor Jiang Wen (The Missing Gun, The Lost Bladesman) directs, stars and co-writes Let The Bullets Fly, and he is now showing just how formidable a film-maker he can be. After making only four films, Jiang Wen has delivered a full-on commercial pic that is the antithesis to anything he has previously directed. With this box-office potential, more films of this type should be a priority for China’s emerging, young film-makers. If they don’t follow the quality commercial path, you can be sure that within twenty years Chinese cinemas will be packed with Chinese people watching the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
A contemporary film-maker of Jiang’s, Feng Xiaogang (If You Are The One), has a bit part in the opening scenes as a Counsel to Governor Ma.
The main characters at different times compare themselves to Robin Hood. Very early in the movie, a reply from Governor Ma’s wife to this assumption puts this myth-making thought into a sharp and hilarious focus. As the only major female role in the cast, Lau’s performance has a wild and wily carnality that is matched only by her life affirming avarice.
The film received an MA censorship rating which it doesn’t fully deserve: there’s only one moment of “strong violence” which is actually played out in a pitch black comic manner. It involves an accused person trying to prove his innocence by disemboweling himself to show how much he had eaten of a particular food. It’s not pretty….
For me, the highlight of this movie is the fact that a large mainland co-production is allowed to create such a morally and legally bankrupt world, where the cream of China’s film industry seem to be having such a great time. Possibly, this was partly due to the picture being so popular: create an imperfect fantasy world and the audiences will come.
Now for the not-so-good-news: at the two-thirds point in the movie a major character is disposed of. The narrative then noticeably sags and a contrived action ending seems just that, with an ambiguous fate set up for the two remaining lead actors. It was a disappointing, sloppy ending.
But overall this ground-breaking Chinese film is well worth catching.