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March 01, 2012

Let the Bullets Fly

let the bullets fly 1.jpg

Rang zidan fei
Jiang Wen - 2010
Well Go USA Entertainment / Variance Films

It's not just the bullets that fly here. There's also a train's passenger car, an alarm clock, and several bodies. This article from the Los Angeles Times would have you believe that Let the Bullets Fly would be difficult viewing. It's not. The film is only a challenge if your idea of movies is dumbed down entertainment that's easy to describe and categorize. There is indeed a story about three men, a bandit, a crooked government official, and a town boss alternately conspiring with and against each other. The film itself might be described as a sometimes violent action adventure film with the anarchy and humor of a Marx Brothers movie. This is Duck Soup with blood and bullets.

Jiang Wen co-wrote, directed and stars in the film. As the bandit chief, Pocky Zhang, Jiang pretty much owns Let the Bullets Fly, with Ge You and Chow Yun-Fat going along for the ride. Taking place in 1919, the film starts out with the ambush of a train carrying a government official, Tang, with his wife, on their way to an assigned posting. Zhang learns from Tang that there's money to be made in government service, without the hard work of banditry, and arranges to pose as the governor of Goose Town. It is in this remote village that Zhang matches wits with the wealthy town boss, Huang.

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And yes, there are cultural references that might not be understood. But there is also some spectacular action as when the passenger car flies through the air and into a lake, or when a giant drum is loosened and rolls down the main street of Goose Town, terrorizing anyone in its path. There is also humor with the scenes between Jiang and Carina Lau, posing as his wife, with a very funny scene of seduction, as well as the use of bird whistles used by Zhang's gang to communicate with each other, with subtitles explaining the meanings of the various tweets, the original twitter network.

The spirit of the Marx Brothers is in a story chock full of impersonations, impostors, doubles, con games, and everything blowing up in the end. A clash between two rival gangs gets stymied when everyone is wearing identical masks. Even when some of the characters admit to their real identities, they are not believed. What finally motivates Zhang is an overriding sense of fairness for the citizens he's suppose to govern, at the expense of everything he has.

There are moments to savor just for their own sake, as when Zhang and company are greeted by a group of young women on taiko drums, led by the gorgeous Zhou Yun, or when Zhang is greeted by Huang, not in person, but by Huang's hat being carted in a luxurious litter. There is a sense of absurdity that is both unexpected and simultaneously an organic part of the narrative. This is the first of Jiang Wen's films as both actor and filmmaker to get a theatrical release in the United States, and as such is a terrific introduction.

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Stills courtesy of Well Go USA / Variance Films

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 1, 2012 08:00 AM


Sir, I read your write-up 'A queer illness' before hopping over to the main page to see what else you have written and found the little section on 'Rang zidan fei'.

I am a Singaporean Chinese; someone who is living in a location at the crossroad of the East and West.

I stumbled on your page 'A queer illness' as I am trawling the internet for reviews of Hong Kong's 1977 'Dream of Red Chamber' starring Brigitte Lin.

There is one peculiar similarity that I find among longer postings - if written by Westerners, they see homoerotic undercurrents in having the male lead played by a female, such as this site http://www.fareastfilms.com/reviewsPage/The-Dream-Of-The-Red-Chamber-461.htm

You said this in 'A queer illness' - "Of the films I've seen her in, Brigitte Lin has never appeared more feminine than in Dream of the Red Chamber, where she plays the male lead."

Well, I was thinking as I read what you wrote, that's the whole point.

I do not know if you are aware (for this following fact is not mentioned in your posting) but 'Dream of the Red Chamber' is a 18th century novel written during China's Qing Dynasty. In the novel, the male lead 'Chia Bao Yu' is such a beautiful boy he can be mistaken as a girl, not to mention possessing a whole host of feminine inclinations that need certain cultural, even... ah... Chinese spiritual framework to justify and understand.

There are several film adaptations (and two TV series) of the novel. It is thought to be impossible to find a male actor who fit the very detailed description of this character. Getting a female to play this role is actually a lot easier; nothing to do with "queer" ideas. The two times a male was cast (in the TV series in China), there was a national hunt - like finding Scarlet O'Hara. Actually, finding the entire cast took national hunts.

The director of the very much appreciated first TV series commented that once such a suitable male actor is discovered, it is impossible for this actor to be found fitting for any other role. Indeed, the actor who (very successfully) played Chia Bao Yu in that highly lauded 1980 series (as opposed to the much criticised 2011 version) could not find acting success after. So impossible, one could say, is the characterisation of Chia Bao Yu. In fact, the many characters of the novel - especially the prominent ones - are so distinctive and unique, the space for creative casting is inconceivable.

Creative casting was what the director of the 2011 TV series dared to do and , I kid you not, it seemed the whole of China howled for her blood.

The point I wish to make, is that it does injustice to an intelligent critique of the film to not understand the immense socio-cultural (and academic) context embedded in the work. In the link earlier, the writer knew the film is based on the novel but still failed to take in account the significance of this information.

And such willing decontextualisation goes for your write-up on 'Rang zidan fei'.

This film, I heard, caused a furore in China. The citizens love it. The authorities are, ehem, not so pleased. Let's just say the film is basically slapping the government in its face.

I think you might have sensed something of this as you wrote "And yes, there are cultural references that might not be understood." However, this line of thought is not pursued. I would like to say that this very one sentence is the most (accidentally) profound of all that you wrote, whether for 'A queer illness' or 'Rang zidan fei'. And if you would be inclined, it is the key to deciphering what it is that the directors hoped to achieve.

Thank you for your interest in Asian cinema.

Posted by: Lim at March 16, 2012 10:06 AM

Thank you for your comments.

There is so much that I don't know about Chinese culture. The best I can do is pick up fragments here and there. I take full responsibility for any misinterpretations I may have, while at the same time acknowledging my own limitations.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at March 17, 2012 04:03 AM