Tribeca 2011: LET THE BULLETS FLY Review

Asian Editor; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)
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Tribeca 2011: LET THE BULLETS FLY Review

Over the past few years, the majority of big-budget mainstream Chinese movies have insisted on beating their audiences over the head with overtly nationalistic sentiment. It has gotten to the point where you can't spend two hours in a Mandarin-speaking cinema without being lectured that you should hate the Japanese and the British, or how indebted to the Communist Party you should be for all that we are & all that we have. How refreshing it was, therefore, to experience Jiang Wen's new holiday blockbuster, LET THE BULLETS FLY, a rip-roaring comedy thriller committed to delivering smart dialogue through great performances and almost entirely free of any underlying political agenda.

Set during the tumultuous Warlord Era of the early 20th Century, when control of the country fluctuated between a number of feuding military cliques, notorious bandit Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen) marches into the remote Goose Town posing as their newly installed governor. He is accompanied by Tang (Ge You), a small-time hustler from whom Zhang steals the idea for this scam, together with Tang's wife (Carina Lau). She doesn't seem too bothered by her abduction however, as becoming Governor's wife fits in nicely with her own aspirations for wealth and power, regardless of whom she must marry to do so.

Zhang's acquisition of power is opposed, however, by local mobster Huang (Chow Yun Fat), who has built a comfortable life for himself in his fortified citadel overlooking the town. While Tang is well aware of Huang's previous financial arrangement with the town's former governor, Zhang has no intention of sharing his ill-gotten gains with a crook he recognizes as just as unworthy as himself. Tensions between the two camps quickly boil over and when blood is spilled, Goose Town erupts in a full-blown power struggle.

It's a scenario that many viewers will have seen played out in dozens of American Westerns in the past and while LET THE BULLETS FLY is never so blatant an homage as Kim Ji Woon's THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD, Jiang's film definitely shares a similar tone and pace with that of his Korean predecessor and he is clearly familiar with the tropes of the genre. The film opens with the ambushing of a train, follows a wanted man as he rides into town looking to make his fortune; a man whose notoriety precedes him and leads to legendary myth-building; and the film builds to a classic stand-off between two equally dastardly, yet mutually respectful criminals, fighting for control of a paltry town that is pretty much leveled by their feud.

What is most refreshing about this tried and tested formula is Jiang's decision to play his film for laughs, and the script is littered with pitch-black humour throughout. While this does mean that audience members reliant on subtitles are not always privy to the intricacies of Jiang's witty wordplay, there are still plenty of laughs to be had, even as they veer close to the borders of bad taste. Murder, molestation, dismemberment and even ritual suicide are all handled with a surprising degree of levity that will induce laughter and wincing in equal measure. The script does take a few broad satirical swipes at government corruption and the unscrupulous behaviour of civil servants, but nothing likely to cause a commotion in Beijing, unlike some of Jiang's previous efforts. LET THE BULLETS FLY is clearly Jiang's most commercial work to date and to be taken as nothing more than good old-fashioned entertainment. But the single biggest reason why the film works as well as it does is because of the three fantastic central performances.

Ge You is slimy, repulsive and wholly unlikable as Tang, the career con artist who has never spoken an honest word in his life and is happy even to relinquish his own wife for a fast buck. When we first meet him, he is lauding it up aboard a shadily acquired steam train carriage, pulled along the tracks by half a dozen horses. This introduction speaks volumes about his character, and how temporary and shambolically assembled the affluence he enjoys really is. Moments later, Tang has been stripped of his dignity and cash, had his next scheme hijacked, his wife kidnapped and his means of transportation utterly destroyed, all by the calm, collected and calculating bandit, Zhang.

Jiang Wen smartly keeps the film's best role for himself. Zhang is a complex criminal, and oceans apart from the weasely Tang, whose life he so effortlessly commandeers. He is a man with an honorable past whose decision to become a bandit was his only chance for an honest life in a political environment that failed to keep the promises made to him as an idealistic youth. His governance of Goose Town looks to be fortuitous not only for him, but also for the common people, but he is barely given a moment to put it into effect as the town's Godfather, Huang, instantly sees him as a threat and is determined to protect his golden goose.

Chow Yun Fat is clearly having a great time as the unscrupulous Huang, enjoying an unrealistically exorbitant lifestyle in this far-flung corner of the country, while nestling in the pocket of the local General. Nothing more than a charismatic mobster, Huang commands an army of vicious outlaws and sociopaths only too happy to stir up trouble at a moment's notice. Chow actually gets to perform a dual role, as Huang keeps a halfwit double on hand should his life be threatened, and one early scene gives them the chance for some impressively staged interaction. Sadly, however, this conceit proves to be one of the script's few failings and is never fully put to use until the film's final reel, where it smacks of convenient contrivance.

Other slight missteps include some rather shoddy CGI work, most notably during the opening train crash. Not one to begrudge a film for overstepping the boundaries of its budgetary limitations, it nevertheless pulls the audience out of the film just as they were settling in. But Jiang quickly finds his feet and from then on maintains a brisk pace throughout, and the combination of action, humour and rather beautifully designed set pieces - most notably a large scale scrubland shootout towards the end of the film - single LET THE BULLETS FLY out as a sure-fire holiday hit that should impress domestic audiences and hopefully find some strong support on the international circuit.  

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Wen JiangJunli GuoBukong LiMa ShituPing ShuXiao WeiSujin ZhuYun-Fat ChowYou GeCarina LauActionComedyWestern

More about Let The Bullets Fly

ToryDecember 14, 2010 6:21 PM

I need to see this as soon as possible. I was just introduced to Jiang Wen through a film class this semester. We watched Devils on the Doorstep and boy, was it awesome. Chow Yun-fat and Ge You kick their share of ass too.

James, if you've seen Devils, is this similar at all?

James MarshDecember 14, 2010 8:11 PM

Sadly I haven't seen it, and appears to be rather difficult to get hold of, although my esteemed colleague Eight Rooks claims it to be Jiang's masterpiece, so will do my best to track it down.

yamabuki72December 14, 2010 10:35 PM

Sounds like a fun film, and I certainly appreciate the lack of kowtowing to Beijing. It seems like anti Japanese propaganda has been so overplayed, that even the CCP members must be bored with it.

Chow Yunfat must have had fun playing one of the villains, especially with getting to play his own half-wit double.

I also would like to complement you on your well nuanced review. Without having seen the movie, you present it so well that I can see it in my mind's eye from your beautifully written descriptions of the action.

Great job.


iamsheepDecember 15, 2010 3:37 AM

Gonna watch this tomorrow! Can't wait!

In regards to the "Anti-Japanese" propaganda...that's actually not really the case. I work in the local chinese film industry as an editor and I come into contact with censorship on a daily basis. You can't really make movies about crime, corruption and cops set in modern day China (or anything post-1949 for that matter). Films and tv shows will simply never been seen if they make a modern gangster flick. So as a result the only way to have gunplay, violence is to set the story during the Sino-Japanese war where there the conflict is clear and foreign.

This sort of thing also encourages nationalism and promotes the efforts of the Party in those times. This trend of making war time films and costume marital arts films have waned lately due to fatigue. Modern dramas and rom-coms are becoming increasingly popular.

The only films to come out of the mainland recently to deal with modern crime has been a couple of films by Ning Hao (Crazy Stone & Crazy Racer) but even his third film failed to pass the censors due to excessive violence and lack of "positive social message".

Ard VijnDecember 15, 2010 8:05 AM

Color me very intrigued, and I definitely need to see this...
I'd also like to echo yamabuki72's praise for your review James!

Bob ViolenceDecember 17, 2010 11:07 AM

The R1 DVD is still in print and is a perfectly good release, although the price is a bit steep (like most Home Vision releases). I prefer In the Heat of the Sun but really that just means Jiang has two masterpieces under his belt.

Tried to see this tonight but was told the mainland prints don't have English subs -- should probably try again at a different cinema (since you can never be sure if they're just blowing you off) or maybe bite the bullet (sorry) and see it without subs.

Bob ViolenceDecember 17, 2010 11:20 AM

Wind Blast came out not too long ago and fits broadly into the modern-crime category (and the "Eastern Western" category too) -- but then it'll never be mistaken for an incisive social portrait, and it had trouble with the censors too, so...

Matthew LeeDecember 19, 2010 8:07 AM

It was IN THE HEAT OF THE SUN that I'm nuts for, James ;) though DEVILS comes close. I'd say he has two masterpieces and one near, basically (I loved THE SUN ALSO RISES, though it's so bizarre in places it'd be a lot harder to defend). Can hardly wait for this. Good review, too.

Obviously given I've never even been to the mainland I'm nowhere near as clued up as some, but from what I've seen of the more recent films I could readily believe romcoms are the new ticket past SARFT. I guess it's a lot easier to get a 'positive social message' in there, no?

(DRIVERLESS remains the best film I've seen from mainland China this year, though. By no means a masterpiece - I'm expecting Jiang Wen to comfortably beat it - but still excellent.)

heraDecember 19, 2010 12:59 PM

Your generalization about Chinese films is not really true. It just happens to be in the movies you choose to watch. Maybe throw in a review of movies like Color Me Love? And one of the film version of My Own Swordsmen when it comes out? Yao Chen is too hot to ignore on your site.

heraDecember 19, 2010 1:01 PM

You should visit, you'd be surprised. :)

TayetritDecember 27, 2010 7:52 PM

The reviewer's compliant about nationalistic anti-Japanese sentiments in the first paragraph is actually a very poor one. You have to take in consideration of the setting and the time of the film. Many of these big-budget films are set around the time of World War II or the two Sino-Japanese Wars. Did any Hong Kong or Chinese films set in "contemporary" time portray anti-Japanese sentiments? So by the reviewer's conclusion, the majority of English-language films set during World War II "should not" have anti-German bias? Good luck finding those!

James MarshDecember 27, 2010 9:49 PM

Tayetrit - you have misunderstood my point. My complaint is precisely that, as you say, "many of these big budget films are set around the time of World War II or the two Sino-Japanese wars" and therefore contain a lot of anti British and Japanese sentiment. If the only films Hollywood made were WWII movies I'd soon get bored of their anti German/Japanese themes too. I long for the day Chinese filmmakers can make contemporary dramas and thrillers about something other than Shu Qi & Ge You's tedious love lives. There are a few, like Ning Hao, but really not enough. I know the reasons for it, but I'm still allowed to get bored by the Nationalistic breast beating the industry is forced into promoting ad nauseum.

wool.sweatherFebruary 25, 2011 10:09 PM

I noticed that a lot of the English blogs got this detail wrong: Huang's halfwit double is played by a different actor---Chow Yun Fat's impersonator.

The only picture I could find of him on google is this:

Anyway, they're indistinguishable in in the movie.
Now, please spread the word!