Gunfights, razor-sharp humor and an arresting cat-and-mouse struggle between a bandit posing as a county governor and a local plutocrat — all wrapped in Western trappings and starring a peerless cast including Chow Yun-fat (周潤發), Ge You (葛優) and Jiang Wen (姜文). Let the Bullets Fly (讓子彈飛) by actor and director Jiang has all the ingredients for a blockbuster, and a blockbuster it is: The film raked in US$111 million in less than two months after it was released in China on Dec. 16 last year, becoming the country’s highest-grossing Chinese-language movie of all time.
Terrific performances and well-crafted story aside, the film’s immense success lies in the fact that it is readily embraced as a mirror of present-day China by Chinese viewers who find the political satire a welcome relief from life under an autocratic regime.
It all begins in 1919 China, a tumultuous time when the fledgling republic was divided among military cliques. Ma Bangde (played by Ge), a practiced conman, is en route to becoming the new governor of Goose Town when daredevil bandit Zhang Muzhi (played by Jiang) appears on a nearby hill and derails the train on which Ma is traveling with flying bullets.
Appalled, the chameleonic Ma tells Zhang that he is just the governor’s counselor Tang, prompting the train robber to decide to pose as the governor and make a quick fortune out of the township’s rich and the powerful. But when the Robin Hood figure enters Goose Town with his entourage of bandits, who pretend to be officers, the gang discovers the lawless village is ruled by local kingpin and plutocrat Huang Silang (played by Chow).
Zhang’s material quest is quickly replaced by a vow of vengeance on Huang, who is responsible for the death of Zhang’s adoptive son Lao Liu (Zhang Mo, 張默). Machiavellian mind games ensue; shootouts and carnage erupt.
Let the Bullets Fly 讓子彈飛
DIRECTED BY: Jiang Wen (姜文)
STARRING: Jiang as Zhang Muzhi, Ge You (葛優) as Ma Dingbang/Tang, Chow Yun-fat (周潤發) as Huang Silang
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: Today
Based on the chapter Dao Guan Ji (盜官記) from Sichuan author Ma Shitu’s (馬識途) novel Ye Tan Shi Ji (夜譚十記), the film is reminiscent of works by Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, and swings deftly between hilarity and brutal violence.
The most gripping virtue of the period blockbuster is not gunfights, however, but brilliantly scripted battle strategies, witty dialogue and clever sophism. Snappy talk among the loquacious characters is a delight to the ears that resembles freestyle rap battles. Unfortunately, the complexity of the wordplay will be mostly lost in translation to audience members reliant on subtitles.
The film would lose much of its charm without the bravura acting by the three leading men, all at the top of their game. As a calculating heroic figure, Jiang shares electrifying onscreen chemistry with Ge, lovable as a smart-talking weasel and opportunist, while Chow elicits admiration for his seemingly effortless conveyance of a treacherous crook with a charming veneer. An equally dreamy host of supporters surround the trio, including Carina Lau (劉嘉玲) as Ma Bangde’s capricious wife, Chen Kun (陳坤) playing Huang’s sidekick, and Hu Jun (胡軍), making a cameo appearance as a pock-faced imposter.
But the star appeal pales under the avalanche of heated discussions on China’s blogosphere, with critics, scholars and general audiences looking for subtexts inside the political allegory while gleefully marveling at the fact that the movie could slip through the watchful eyes of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, the nation’s censorship body. (The authority did reportedly ask movie theaters across the country to reduce screenings soon after its commercial release.)