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.