Review by Trylon senior railroad bandit Thorn Chen
The outlaw Zhang Muzhi (played by the director, Jiang Wen) arrives in town, impersonating its mayor. In order to get his way, he has to oust the incumbent warlord, the villainous opium merchant and human trafficker Huang Siliang (Chow Yun-fat), who currently has the place on lockdown. In the middle there is Ma Bangde (Ge You), the real mayor, who was strong-armed by Zhang to surrender his title in a railway heist. It’s bandit versus bandit in a game of gunplay, deception, and theatrical posturing. As their plots against each other crescendo, it becomes clear that whoever better manipulates public opinion will decide the day.
The setting is 1920s China, a time of unrest. Warlords vie for control of land and influence. Bandits ride around on horseback, searching for fortune. Government officials follow, greedily chasing their share of the loot. Such is the mythos of Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, a film that combines, with characteristic immoderation, the extravagant action sequences of a spaghetti Western with the plot of a theatrical intrigue. A good part of the film is dialogue driven, focusing on discussions of strategy and layered with sharp witticisms that are, unfortunately, mostly inaccessible to non-Chinese speaking viewers. The plots are then translated into fast paced and often-outlandish action, all taking place in a carefully crafted mise-en-scène that more closely resembles the set of a board game than a real life Chinese village. The board game effect is accentuated by the film’s turn-taking rhythm but contradicted by its absurdist imagery: a courtyard filled two feet deep with guns, a steam-powered railroad car that is nonetheless drawn by a pack of stallions (to take two examples). Lines like “let the bullets fly for a while,” delivered coolly by the swashbuckling Zhang, are pure statements of the film’s parodic brilliance. They show the utter groundlessness of the hero’s macho charisma, yet they encourage us to enjoy it nonetheless. This is the spaghetti Western tradition at its best.
The film is not simply a parodic Western intrigue set in China, however. Yes, there’s plenty of intrigue, action, and cool guy posturing, but also an equal amount of political commentary, literary criticism, and cultural navel-gazing. No doubt you’d have to watch it more than once, or twice, to get it all. When it came out in 2010, Let the Bullets Fly broke the box office record in China, taking full advantage of the rapid expansion of the Chinese film industry in lieu of the boom in domestic consumer spending. It did so by creating a multi-layered texture exploding with action, comedic moments, and barely hidden political commentary, deeply satisfying to intellectuals and the popular audience alike. Critics have speculated about the film’s other meanings: is it an allegory of Mao’s victory over the nationalists? Or is it a film lampooning the current corruption of the communist party? A statement on the character of the Chinese people? An indictment of the rush for riches in the wake of economic reform? The cool thing about Jiang Wen’s film is that it is available to all these interpretations at the same time. This is one of those cases where the director tries to satisfy everyone at once, and succeeds. — Thorn Chen
LET THE BULLETS FLY screens Monday and Tuesday, July 20 and 21 at 7:00 and 9:30 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.