Jiang Wen was already a celebrated actor and director when he penned, directed and starred in Let the Bullets Fly. Celebrated and revered in China, Jiang Wen is perhaps most well known outside his country for his role in Zhang Yimou's breakthrough film, Red Sorghum. He is also major international writer/director. His debut, In the Heat of the Sun, set during the Cultural Revolution, won a Volpi Award for Best Actress at Venice and his second feature, Devils on the Doorstep – a three-hour historical epic set during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II – won the Grand Prix at Cannes but was then banned in China. Let the Bullets Fly is Wen's fourth film and it is a huge departure in style. Unabashedly commercial, it is a star-studded satire complete with physical comedy and an acerbic script that has been embraced by Chinese audiences like like nothing before it. Let the Bullets Fly has the potential to be a major, international cross-over hit.
Set in 1920s China during the age of the warlord, Let the Bullets Fly is a big budget, gun toting shoot 'em up. Though classified as a western, it rolls between genres joyfully; full of excess, it fires on all cylinders from the first to last frame.
Wen places himself at the centre of the narrative as the bandit with the heart of gold, "Pocky" Zhang, who arrives at the isolated Goose Town in the guise of the town's newly installed governer. He faces off against the resident mobster, Huang (played by the iconic Chow Yun Fat), as the film proceeds recklessly towards the final showdown.
Entertainment is the name of the game, and this includes a sparkling script (which reportedly went through 30 redrafts, guided by six screenwriters, until it was ready). Wen found the basis for Let the Bullets Fly in a book by Sichuan author Ma Shitu. The final version of the adaptation includes witticisms and contemporary pop cultural references that knowingly clash with the period setting, and add a level of absurdism that only endears the film even more.
The sharp, dialogue-driven script is accompanied by visual gags. Period-specific special effects including horse-drawn trains and a mammoth, rolling Chinese drum, as well as occasional displays of martial arts, create an entirely visceral viewing experience. Violence features heavily and its pervasiveness and often-comical delivery lends to a desensitising effect. This film has everything: from jibes against the corruption of elected public representatives to the delivery of social justice through force. All is delivered with tongue firmly-in-cheek and with impeccable delivery, leaning on Chinese cultural symbolism. Let the Bullets Fly is far from an exposè; humour is the dominant force here (followed closely by guns and knives).
All this is not to say that the film's tone lacks texture. There are many gentle moments, like between Pocky and his adopted son, and in the blossoming friendship with his hostage, the advisor Tang (Ge You). Pocky is too loveable to be classed as a traditional anti-hero. He is a bandit that the audience can root for. a Robin Hood on steroids, armed with guns that rarely seem to run out of ammunition. Pocky may be untouchable, but his heart is not made of stone. He takes revenge when he needs to, but he can also be a fine mentor and friend and lover. Much like the film, he is everything rolled into one.
Watch 'Let the Bullets Fly'
Monday 26 October, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
China, Hong Kong, 2010
Genre: Action, Comedy
Director: Jiang Wen
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Carina Lau, Ge You, Jiang Wen, Feng Xiaogang