Let the Bullets Fly -- Film Review

A rollicking Chinese western directed with cinematic gumption.

ZHUHAI, China -– Machiavellian mind games, a twisted vendetta and high-octane gun slinging among a bandit posing as a governor, his strategist and a small-town kingpin are the stuff of adventure and trenchant humor in the Chinese western, "Let the Bullets Fly." As an allegory on power, corruption and rough justice, it has flashes of intelligence and political acumen.

Actor-auteurJiang Wen directs with a macho, devil-may-care bravadothat expresses the anarchy and rapacious opportunism of warlord-dominated China in the 1920s.

Although the film promotional hook is the rare cast combination of Chow Yun Fat, Ge You and Jiang himself, its instant rise to the summit of China’s box office may be attributed more to the racy storytelling and current Chinese fascination with Wild West crime capers like sleeper Welcome to Shama Town and Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.

The film is less tailored for festivals as the unabashedly entertaining elements clash with Jiang’s more poetic works such as And the Sun Also Rises. Even with polished subtitles, the heady plot and cacophony of loquacious characters demand high viewer alertness. Breathless pacing also causes the narrative to peak before a busy but hurried finale.

While en route to become the new governor of Goose Town, Ma Dingbang’s (Ge You) train is hijacked by notorious bandit Zhang “Pock-faced” Muzhi (Jiang Wen). The chameleon Ma lies to Zhang that he is only the governor’s counselor Tang. Zhang decides to pose as the governor and scam the townsfolk for a fast buck with the aid of Ma. 

When Zhang arrives with his entourage of bandits posing as officers, he soon discovers that Huang Silong, the king of the hill, has colluded with former governors and local tycoons to bleed the townsfolk of everything they own.

When Zhang’s adopted son Six falls prey to Huang’s nasty trick, he swears a revenge worse than death — he will “destroy Huang’s soul.”

Although strategic wars are not novel to China’s period blockbusters, few achieve this film’s level of sophistication in nuanced dialogue, plot twists and bravura acting. Even though the protagonists are a rogue, crook and weasel respectively, Jiang, Chow and Ge imbue their roles’ negative traits with charisma. Chow plays both Huang and his decoy, and makes the distinction clear. He conveys the former’s unfathomable nature, whose treachery is hidden behind a veneer of westernized dandyish charm.

The action pays homage to Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa, but visual conceptions are more exaggerated and cartoonish. For example, Bulletsopens with a train robbery that stands up to any Hollywood western in its stylized, balletic movement, but it is subverted by a touch of martial arts fantasy: The train is drawn by horses, and its passengers are feasting on a chimney-sized hotpot that shoots off like a satellite when the train is jolted by Zhang’s flying ax.

Kurosawa has the strongest influence as the motif of an outlaw or mercenary who arrives in town to mete out rough justice to a despotic power is a variation of The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Tsubaki Sanjuro. The role of Huang’s decoy is also reminds one of Kagemusha. However, Jiang subverts these personas by making the protagonists anti-heroes with double-identities, dual personalities and multiple moral standards.

Bullets’ world is an unpredictable and savage one. Every farcical scene inevitably breaks out into bloody fracas and betrayal. Zhang is a Robin Hood figure who robs the rich to give to the poor, but he is Huang’s equal in conniving, as seen in the way his manipulates the townsfolk to rise against Huang in a cynical send-up of revolution and class struggle.

Art direction and costumes by William Chang minutely recreates the mongrel style that arbitrarily yokes together east and west in 1920s Southern Chinese architecture, interior décor and fashion.

Production: Emperor Motion Picture (International) Ltd., Beijing Buyilehu Film and Culture Ltd present, in association with China Film Group with assistance of China Film Co-production Corp. a Beijing Buyilehu Film and Culture Ltd. Production
Sales: Emperor Motion Picture
Cast: Jiang Wen, Chow Yun Fat, Ge You, Carina Lau, Zhou Yu
Director-screenwriter: Jiang Wen
Screenwriters: Shu Ping, Zhu Sujin, Guo Junli, Wei Xiao, Li Bukong
Based on the novella by: Ma Shitu
Produced by: Albert Lee, Barbie Tung, Zhao Haicheng
Executive producer:Albert Yeung, Ma Ke, Han Sanping
Director of photography: Zhao Fei
Production designer:Eddy Wong, Gao Yiguang, Yu Qinghua
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Costume designer:William Chang
No rating, 132 minutes