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May 22, 2014

Eastern Bandits

eastern bandits 1.jpg

Pi fu
Yang Shu-peng - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

My first encounter with a film by Yang Shu-peng, and what a bravura piece of filmmaking. The film opens with a Strauss waltz, and a traveling camera that introduces several of the main characters within a room where a formal reception is taking place. It takes a few visual clues to realize that the scene takes place during World War II, with Japanese soldiers in China. The seemingly good natured, but also pointed banter, between an officer and a man identifying himself as a reporter, ends with a quartet of people with guns discretely aimed in each others ribs. The film's Chinese title is translated as "An Inaccurate Memoir", and most of the film is an extended flashback on how this gang of Chinese bandits made their way into a Japanese fort.

There are several other notable traveling shots in the film. Yang composes these shots to give a sense of the space where the gang is operating, and their relationship to each other within that space, such as the scene where the gang leader is busted out of prison and onto the street. One of the more amazing shots takes place in the gang's underground hideout, a labyrinth of tunnels, where the camera snakes around while various gang members engage in a shootout with Japanese soldiers. The camera follows the a gang member or two in action, while moving through the various pathways, giving a sense of the depth and pathways, similar to an ant farm.

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The memoirs are those of Gao, a man on his way in the desert to be married, kidnapped by the bandit gang. Infatuated with the sister of the gang boss, Gao decides to join the gang, proving his worth when he saves the surviving members following a robbery gone wrong. Based on the gangs gumption and guns, mostly the guns, Gao decides that the gang should use their talents to take on the Japanese, and makes a plan to assassinate the brother of Emperor Hirohito, visiting a remote fort in the desert.

Some other writings about Yang, specific to his previous film, The Robbers, mention the influence of Akira Kurosawa. What I see in this newer film is the influence of a couple of Kurosawa's cinematic heirs, primarily Sam Peckinpah, with a bit of Walter Hill. Walter Hill? This is the first Chinese movie I've seen with slide guitar as part of the soundtrack, and I kept anticipating seeing Ry Cooder's name in the credits. The Peckinpah influence is a bit more obvious with sense of absurdity and nihilism that inform the final shootout.

The big difference is that unlike Kurosawa, Peckinpah and Hill, if you discount The Warriors, women have the place in the gang. The one known as Lady Dagger shows off her sex appeal in distracting a soldier, and shows why she's known by that sobriquet, when doing her part to get gang boss Fang out of jail. Gao's relationship with Fang's sister, Jen, alternates between hostility and affection, with humorous results.

I have to assume that Eastern Bandits looks spectacular on an actual movie screen. There are several shots of the characters in the distance, riding horseback through the desert. The exuberance of the opening scene eventually settles into a steady pace, but between the audacity of the characters, and Ynng's visual stylings, the film remains intriguing. And when was the last time you saw a Chinese movie end with Mandarin heavy metal song?

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 22, 2014 08:02 AM