Director: Wen Jiang
Starring: Wen Jiang, Chow yun-fat, Ge You, Feng Xiaogeng, Kun Chen, Carina Lau, Wu Jiang, Mo Zhang
The highest grossing film in China, Let the Bullets Fly, stars three of China‘s biggest stars and shattered box office records and ticket sales across the country, earning a number of Golden Horse nomination and wins to its prestige. Director Jiang Wen also writes and stars in this story that is part thriller, part Western, and part satirical commentary, both about the government and of the local film industry. Coming stateside, courtesy of WellGo USA, Let the Bullets Fly comes courting art house fans as well as the typical action hunters. So does it live up to all the hype and reputation? Or does something get lost in translation?
Let the Bullets Fly tells the story of bandit Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen). He and his group of skilled bandits have developed a large reputation out in their area, Sichuan. Attacking a train they believe to be loaded with money, they instead kill everyone on board, minus the new governor (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau), on their way to a new post. Finding the lack of payoff unacceptable, Zhang comes up with a new plan; to assume the governor’s identity and exploit his position to get money. With that he and his group set out to Goose Town, with survivors in tow, to seek their fortune. Unknown to them, Goose Town is ruled by a feudal-style warlord, Huang (Chow Yun-fat) who likes his position of power and will be damned to go without a fight. What follows is a tale of false identities, betrayals, double crosses, and scenes of extreme violence set to a color palette evocative of John Ford westerns.
Jiang Wen shines as the confident and oddly honorable bandit, Zhang. He carries a likeability that translates well to the audience and I found myself continually smiling at his one-upmanship. Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Winner, Ge You plays the more comedic role for which he is known throughout his native country. He is very funny with nuanced facial expressions and a lot of physical comedy. His neurotic and greedy governor that finds himself fighting alongside the bandits that attacked him is a very interesting character. Characters and audience members alike are unsure as to his loyalties till the end. Chow Yun-fat is both charming and menacing as the villain Huang. He is a schemer that always has a plan and is used to getting his way, who finally meets a comparable opponent in Jiang Wen’s Zhang. Supporting actors are good as well, with memorable performances between both Zhang’s group of bandits and Huang’s stable of enforcers and their many scuffles throughout the film.
One of the most striking things that viewers more unfamiliar to Chinese cinema may notice is the dialogue driven comedy that makes humor out of mispronunciations and wordplay which does not necessarily translate well. I imagine that the subtitle translators must have had a difficult time finding the translation that would be most accessible to the Western audience. I applaud the good job done here, much better than other subtitling jobs that lose purpose and context in exchange for pure translation. The music is very good, composed by the incomparable Joe Hisaishi, personally one of my favorite composers ever. It is more subdued and delicate than some of his other works, but easily identifiable at the same time.
The film is not without its faults however. There is great deal of cultural humor throughout that I am sure will go over the heads of some viewers. Issues of political satire, culture, and history did seem to escape me in some parts, but there is enough broad humor throughout so as not to feel off kilter. The visual effects in the film were very underwhelming, I’d seen worse, but considering the talent and pedigree behind the film, it just took me out of the film a bit to see such sloppy VFX. The film is quite long and seems to lose direction a bit in its132 minute runtime. For sure a bit of editing would have served to make the film leaner and more streamlined. And while not something I considered being bad, was the use of explicit violence throughout. As a dark comedy, I feel the film absolutely warranted it, but I’ve heard some criticisms regarding it. Some scenes are quite brutal actually, but in the same way action in a Tarantino film is done in bursts.
In the end, Let the Bullets Fly, is an odd film to review. It is a very culturally rich film but doesn’t educate those unfamiliar with its significance. Overall, I’d say it was a very entertaining film filled with good performances and great characters, though definitely tailored towards a native audience, or those with a bit of knowledge about Chinese history or government. The film has a lot to offer viewers interested in seeing authentic Chinese moviemaking, as opposed to the unchallenging but entertaining fare of most Hong Kong films. Recommended.
Special Thanks to Well Go Entertainment for providing a viewing copy!