With its North American premiere happening this Saturday, July 7th at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, we now revisit James Marsh's review of Guns n' Roses from May.
Wunderkind and enfant terrible are both labels
that have been regularly applied to mainland director Ning Hao, who
first began turning heads on the festival circuit with his debut Mongolian Ping Pong back in 2005. It was his sophomore feature, however, that really caused a splash. Crazy Stone
was a surprise hit at the Chinese box office - an independent low
budget caper movie with no stars and a labyrinthine plot of small time
crooks and part time security guards all with their eyes on a valuable
jewel. Ning's followed this success with Crazy Racer, which took
the same model even further with frenetic pacing, madcap humour,
multiple characters and half a dozen different story strands that had
critics drawing comparisons to Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie.
Unfortunately his next film, No Man's Land (also known as Western Sunshine),
which follows the misadventures of a city lawyer in Xinjiang province,
fell foul of the Chinese censors and has yet to see the light of day.
Two years later we have the glossy period caper Guns And Roses.
Set in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation, we are introduced to
Xiao Dongbei (newcomer Lei Jia Yin), a fast-talking hustler who eeks out
a living on the streets pulling petty cons, cheating anyone out of
whatever he can (including starving children) and who will claim
allegiance to whichever side currently has him cornered. When Xiao winds
up in jail for the umpteenth time and sharing a cell with a real
revolutionary he soon finds himself in possession of highly valuable
information regarding an incoming shipment of gold. Needless to say he
soon has a gang of rebels on his tail looking to squeeze the information
Xiao sees this as his big chance to
score big and insists on joining the gang, led by the glamorous screen
actress Sister Fang (Tao Hong). They concede only for matters to worsen
when Xiao falls for Xixi (Cheng Yuanyuan), the beautiful daughter of
their intended mark, bank president Gu. The stage is therefore set for a
madcap comedy of errors the likes of which Ning has delighted us with
in the past. However, as the film proceeds and the various interested
parties plot their intended heists upon the bank's impenetrable vault to
lay their hands on the vast quanitities of gold bullion within, there
is no escaping the overriding fact that the film is frankly rather
That is not to say that Guns And Roses
is bad. The performances are all uniformly strong, with Lei Jia Yin
making a particularly likable antihero and standing out despite being
surrounded by a gaggle of Ning regulars including Guo Tao, Fan Wei, Liu
Hua and even a cameo appearance from Huang Bo. The film is just wholly
unremarkable, only displaying the breakneck pacing and anarchic wit of
the director's previous films on perhaps a half dozen occasions. There
is one great joke early on involving a lifesize crucifix that gets a
huge laugh and gives false hope that the film might be finding its feet.
However it proves a solitary flash in the pan in a film that seems
intent on satisfying a large mainstream audience without rustling any
feathers or causing much of a scandal.
with great surprise, therefore, that after enduring 90 minutes of Ning
Hao basically playing it broad and safe for a large holiday crowd, the
film culminates in such a tragic and downbeat ending. It is understood
that in modern Chinese Cinema, criminals must never prosper and the
Japanese occupying forces must always be personified as brutal savages,
but Guns And Roses ends on a real downer that can hardly be
justified by the preceding hour and a half. It is certainly effective,
and may well leave viewers teary-eyed at the fate of some of its major
players, but does nothing to ease the mood of disappointment that will
have already filled the hearts of Ning Hao fans in the audience.
Guns And Rose
is no travesty by any stretch, and in all fairness proves to be a
perfectly respectable way to spend two hours of your time. However,
there is nothing about it - save for the introduction of leading man Lei
Jia Yin - that raises the film out of mediocrity and into essential
viewing territory, which is where one always hopes (and up until now has
found) the films of Ning Hao to most comfortably reside. One can only
hope that if this film was indeed to placate those unhappy with how No Man's Land
came out, that penance has now been paid and he can go back to being daring, exciting and a little bit crazy.As part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival Guns n' Roses screens this Saturday, July 7 (9pm) and Tuesday, July 10 at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center. Click here for more info and tickets.