'Gone With The Bullets' ('Yi Bu Zhi Yao'): Film Review

Jiang Wen - H 2014

Jiang Wen - H 2014

Sprawling spectacle of an auteur's ego going into overdrive. 

Maverick actor-director Jiang Wen continues to jab at Chinese history with a satire about the fallout of an over-the-top beauty contest in '20s Shanghai

"We should struggle less at home, and expand more ashore," says a character during Gone With The Bullet's first section, in which a Chinese diva triumphs over her U.S. and European counterparts in a rigged beauty pageant in Shanghai. Director Jiang Wen, who co-penned this film with eight other screenwriters, has certainly walked the talk in this line: Gone with the Bullets is an extraordinary mélange of seminal stylistic tropes from abroad, a two-hour-plus journey taking in nods to newsreels, silent slapstick, musicals, film noir and even New Hollywood — not to mention the specific pastiches of The Godfather, Chicago, The Italian Job and even the Bogart-Bacall whistle moment in To Have And Have Not.

But a mish-mash of references a masterpiece does not make. Unlike his brilliantly barbed, sensitively structured and meticulously multi-layered 2010 hit Let the Bullets Fly, Gone With The Bullets — described as the second installment of a trilogy of gun-slinging satires set in tumultuous 1920s China — is a sprawling, episodic spectacle reading less like a j'accuse of social malaise, and more like a record of a self-styled auteur's ego going completely into overdrive as he indulges in shaping his lead character (played by himself) as a misunderstood and victimized idealist, while unleashing a torrent of supposedly clever bites at the hands who feed him.

And the hands have seemingly bitten back, as Jiang has finally gone one step too far with his misanthropy, a trait that used to amuse with his more skillful portrayal as the masses as self-seeking and unwashed in his previous outings like the second-world-war drama Devils on the Doorstep and Let the Bullets Fly. The carefully orchestrated buzz preceding the film's release in China — a campaign elevated to front-page status when producers cancelled its Dec. 8 gala premiere, citing "last-minute developments regarding censorship" — was derailed by a barrage of bad word-of-mouth after it finally bowed on Dec. 15, with opening-day takings falling short of the filmmakers' previous projections. While the film is still well-placed to be a hit during China's festive New Year period, expectations of it being a runaway success will now be put to the test by Tsui Hark's 3D action-adventure piece Taking of Tiger Mountain, which opens on Dec. 24.

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Jiang's character in the film, Ma Zouri, carries a similar life trajectory to Yan Ruisheng, a middle-class man who plotted the murder of a prostitute in Shanghai in 1920. What makes Yan's case legendary is not the crime itself, but its fallout: The case at once scandalized and mesmerized the city's chattering classes, with the man's trial and subsequent execution leading to entrepreneurs staging plays, stand-up comedy shows, musicals and even making a film (allegedly the first-ever Chinese feature) out of the incident. It's perhaps ironic that Jiang is to mock those transforming the so-called Yan Ruisheng affair into entertainment by, well, making a film that transforms the incident into a film comprising scenes reminiscent of stage plays, stand-up comedy and a musical.

Then again, Jiang will certainly be self-assured and hard-boiled in explaining this away, just as Jiang's protagonist Ma begins the film on a high. Dressed in a tuxedo, toying his pet and holding court in his dark, timber-covered office, he hears requests like a Chinese equivalent of Vito Corleone with his Tom Hagen-like police-officer sidekick Xiang Feitian (Ge You). Here, the one pleading for help is Wu Qi (Wen Zhang, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons), a warlord's spoilt scion who wants Ma to help him launder his "new money" so as to rid of his reputation of being parvenu. Ma's solution? To use the money to stage an lavish show of a beauty pageant, with its Oscars-night-like proceedings broadcast live on radio around the world.

It's a hectic first half hour, as Keith and Sharon Young's dashing dance sequences (including one based on South Pacific) competes for attention against a Ma-Xiang comedic cross-talk, Ma's voiceover introducing other characters in the background, and interwoven faux newsreel footage of a Shanghai enthralled by the event. It's around this time that the winner of the night emerges, as incumbent beauty queen Wanyan Ying (Shu Qi of Three Times, her voice dubbed by radio program host Chen Chen) is "re-elected" by the crowd after her stirring (and Ma-penned) monologue calling for openness, generosity and an enthusiasm for individual (and possibly national) rebirth.

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Barely has the mayhem ended that Gone With The Bullets switched gear, as Ma and Wanyan are engaged in some (full-clothed) bedroom frolics while they debate about marriage and discuss, in Tarantino-esque mode, the historical origins of people saying "I do". A drug-addled drive to the countryside later, however, Wanyan is dead, Ma becomes a fugitive and Xiang rises through the ranks in Shanghai's French concessions with his efforts in capturing his former associate. Ma is arrested trying to interrupt a gaudy (but rapturously received) Chinese opera performance painting him as an evil psychopath, and his descent into ignominy is complete when Xiang coaxes him to play himself in a lurid exploitative flick about his own misdeeds.

Amid all these betrayals and public lynchings, only one light shines through: Wu Qi's sister Wu Liu (Zhou Yun), a headstrong George Mèlies-like inventor-filmmaker who manages to convince her warlord father (Liu Linian) to extradite Ma from the French to Chinese-ruled soil — a move that will grant the tyrant some respect from the nationalistic crowds and the young woman the man she silently craves. A rebel to the bone, Ma continues to flap in the face of his fate, screaming about his innocence and his rightful place in history in what should have been a staged show trial and then confronting his pursuers in a grand, Don Quixote-referencing finale under a giant windmill.

Ma will have a final harangue at the end, but whether anyone's left to care about what he says — especially after that final 15-minute of a bizarre car chase around villages with traditional earthen roundhouses — is debatable. It's only the last of Gone With The Bullet's unending string of increasingly bizarre aesthetical and narrative twists ricocheting all over the place. With the visual effects also falling short of giving the film that additional, fantastical sheen, Gone With The Bullet's epic pretensions have, well, gone with the wind.

Now that Jiang has committed an auteur's inevitable ego-driven project about himself and his history — Ma's recollections of a Gallic romance mirrors the director's eight-year marriage with a French woman, while the materialistic Wanyan Ying and the artistic Wu Liu (played by his own wife) could be seen as Jiang torn between commerce and culture — maybe it's time for Jiang to step off his pedestal, cast his cynicism aside and engage with the real crossfire beyond his own comfort zone, and to reveal the state of mind a population who think they are calling the shots, but are actually only being stood there to be shot at.

Production companies: Beijing Buyilehu Film and Culture Co., Dongyang Yibudaowei Entertainment, Wuxi Qikaidesheng Entertainment, in a presentation with Columbia Pictures, Emperor Motion Pictures, China Film Co., Wanda Film and TV, Omnijoi, Shanghai Film Group, Beijing iQiyi

Cast: Jiang Wen, Ge You, Zhou Yun, Shu Qi

Director: Jiang Wen

Screenwriters: Jiang Wen, Guo Junli, Wang Shuo, Liao Yimei,  Wang Shuping, Yan Yunfei, Sun Yue, Sun Rui, Yu Yanlin

Producers: Albert Lee, Yun Hongbo, with Dede Nickerson, Li Anchong, Zhao Haicheng, Zhao Fang, Liu Jun

Executive producers: Albert Yeung, Jiang Wen, Doug Belgrad, Ma Ke, with La Peikang, Ye Ning, Zhang Hua, Ren Zhonglun, Gong Yu

Director of photography: Xie Zhengyu

Production designer: Liu Qing

Costume designer: Lu Fengshan

Editors: Jiang Wen, Zhang Yifan

Musical director: Lang Lang

International Sales: Sony Pictures Releasing International

In Mandarin, Shanghainese, French, English, Vietnamese and Japanese

No rating, 140 minutes