Set in China during the warring 1920s, notorious bandit chief Zhang (Jiang Wen) descends upon a remote provincial town posing as its new mayor, an identity that he had hijacked from Old Tang (Feng Xiaogang), himself a small-time imposter. Hell-bent on making a fast buck, Zhang soon meets his match in the tyrannical local gentry Huang (Chow Yun-Fat) as a deadly battle of wit and brutality ensues.
BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There’s a delightful air of 'anything can happen’ in actor/director Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly. It’s a wonderfully over-the-top genre satire that manages to name check a shopping list of pop culture references – everything from R&B street style, Bruce Lee movies, soccer, and cop shows, samurai pics and especially westerns – all done in the context of a 1920s costume pic, a time when the warlords were tearing up China. It abounds with spectacular CGI effects, swordplay, hilariously anachronistic dialogue and nonsense for its own sake; yet, by movie’s end, its re-invented itself as a bold kind of genre film, as righteous and clever as its hero.
It’s a smart film, one that understands archetypes and conventions and knocks them around, poking fun and enjoying them all the same. One of the best things about the film is the way Jiang Wen creates a playful mood out of tiny incidental details. In the film’s first scene, a parody of a cowboy movie train hijack, Jiang Wen has one of the bad guys crouch and bend over, ear against the railway track so he can 'hear’ the approaching locomotive. It’s a classic western image; except here, the bandit stops to clean out his ear with his pinky finger first! It’s a slight throw away gag and its inherent silliness foreshadows the ludicrous action that follows.
The storyline is a messy plot of cross and double cross, and in fact it seems a send up of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and in turn the films that were the basis of these two Leone pics, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962).
In essence, Let the Bullets Fly consciously rehearses the 'bad town’ plot of the Leone/Kurosawa pics: an amoral outsider stumbles into a place of corruption and out of self-interest (at first) he manages to reform the place.
Still, Jiang Wen has no reverence for this stuff; Bullets’ overly elaborate plotting, its vast cast of small characters and episodic structure, is so complicated it becomes crazy; just how, what and why is often scrambled and confused. Of course, for fans of the Leone/Kurasawa pics, this is an in-joke, one of the film’s many. Critics have always complained that perhaps there is too much plot in this kind of action pic.
Actually, the set-up is pretty straightforward: it’s an identity swap, a chance for a bandit to live like a 'king’. "Pocky" Zhang (Jiang) and his gang derail a train headed for Goose Town; the mayhem supposedly kills the new governor but his wife (Carina Lau) and lackey Tang (Ge You) survive (in fact, he is Governor Ma). Since no one knows what the new governor looks like, Pocky, knowing a good opportunity when he sees one, assumes his identity; the other two, sensing a chance for survival, have no choice but to go along with the ruse.
Pocky soon learns the real-politik of the place first-hand; it’s a world of ugly compromise and exploitation where the common folk endure rip-offs and characters like Huang (the great Chow Yun Fat), a drug dealer and slave trader who is the real power base of Goose Town. (He has a double too, and Chow is quite brilliant – funny and menacing in both parts).
With Ma/Tang as his advisor, Pocky eventually concocts a scheme to neuter Huang’s power; it would be giving too much away to explain this aspect of the story further, suffice to say it involves that great stand-by of action stories – revenge.
Of course, there are all sorts of complications and sub-plots that echo the central conceit, where identities are fluid, motivations are obscure and loyalty is qualified.
At times Jiang stops the action for a bit of inventive comedy (there’s a very funny bit with a 'human football’) but about the halfway mark, the film’s two strongest impulses – parody and action – unify in a set-piece that’s startlingly strange, even moving. A character, confronted by a villain, must prove his righteousness and so he cuts his belly open; emptying the contents of his stomach to prove some stupid point"¦ Not only is this a savage parody of macho competitiveness, it reminded me of the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and Holy Grail (1974). It also works as a piece of blood curdling melodrama. After this, the film turns up the emotional heat and the effect is mesmerizing. Great fun.