LET THE BULLETS FLY (Rang zidan fei) B-
China Hong Kong (132 mi) 2010 ‘Scope d: Jiang Wen
Who says the Chinese can’t produce the same kind of overblown cartoonish violence that not only packs American movie houses but are exported around the world like a church of cinema collection plate, a kind of exploitive capitalist enterprise designed to rake in gobs of money? While still working on the reservoirs and run off tributaries created from the monumental megalith that is STAR WARS (1977), movies love to create epic spectacle where more is supposedly better, creating exaggerated caricature of Hollywood proportion where truth and reality are discarded, unnecessary variables when all that matters is nonstop action. Little more than a blur of kinetic energy connected by threatening macho dialogue, one wonders where political entities get the idea of aggressive militarism? Political leaders are a product of their own nation’s mythology, where American Presidents Reagan and Bush were identified with “cowboy” diplomacy, a reckless form of political aggression backed up by arrogance and belligerence, the kind of Wild West machismo they saw in the movies when growing up, choosing to act upon the myth, literally inventing their own reality on the world stage. For China to enter this monolithic view of the world already dominated by American movies can hardly be seen as progress, but they have every right to compete for the same target audience and gargantuan box office dollars. Already the highest grossing film in Chinese history, this simply does not bode well for the movie industry overall, as this is grand scale filmmaking with an over-reliance on cartoonish computerized special effects, exactly the kind of nonsense Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli Studios, for instance, refused to mass produce in Japan, instead relying upon human manpower to draw his films frame by frame, showing artistic integrity in the creation of their animated delights.
As for entertainment, half the fun is in the casting, bringing back big mainstream attractions that have been off in Hong Kong making mega-dollars, where Chow Yun-Fat hadn’t made a Cantonese movie in nearly 20 years. Loosely based on an exaggerated spaghetti western style, the film is set in the wide open spaces of rural China in the 1920’s, a time when modernization was threatening to alter an entrenched system of corruption that was likely in place for centuries. Nonetheless, the ties to the past have a way of preventing any possibility of progress, where power remains in the hands of a few who reign over the capitulating populace like typical warlords. The writer/director cast himself as a thinking man’s bandit, Pocky Zhang, known throughout the land, but never captured and rarely seen. His small entourage of gun proficient followers makes him the leader of an outlaw gang that robs a train in an opening scene, using a nonsensical, hyper-inflated style that is amusingly ridiculous, that sets the improbable tone for what follows, creating a larger than life persona for the bandit who immediately decides to assume the role of the governor who supposedly perishes on the train, taking as hostages the governor’s counselor (Ge You) and sultry wife (Carina Lau), the only survivors from the train wreck. Their expected arrival in the desolate outback of Goose Town is greeted by a percussive litany of drums, with beautiful women pounding on them in a fury of exalted submission, bowing down to the new governor who quickly makes his presence felt. Ge You, who is really the governor (a purchased position) pretending to be a counselor to save his life, is a lying weasel throughout, where his chameleon like ability to change allegiances defines his inherent spineless character. Chow Yun-Fat, however, is the notorious crime lord Master Huang, a highly profitable crook who has already stolen all the money from everyone in town through various criminal enterprises, exploiting the citizens through excessive taxes while running a house of prostitution and controlling the opium trade, leaving nothing left for the new governor to steal.
Immediately the illusory tone of deception is set between the governor, a Robin Hood like socialist who shares the wealth, and Huang, a corrupt and greedy capitalist who steals the wealth, two stridently confident examples of leaders who each refuse to back down but instantly feign humility and gratitude, setting various traps behind the scenes with double and triple crosses, where the blunt but insidiously clever dialogue is loaded with half truths, double entendre, and ancient proverbs, all designed to mislead the opponent. A series of altercations ensue, each secretly challenging the other, but leaving no trace of origin, feigning innocence and mutual cooperation while attempting to undermine their enemy and bring them to their knees. While there are traces of machismo from Sergio Leone westerns or the swagger of Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa’s epic samurai figure, this film is too cartoonish and simply doesn’t share the same touch of grace or air of nobility. While not as extravagant as John Woo’s RED CLIFF (2008) or as sumptuously lavish as Zhang Yimou’s CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006), two recent Chinese historical dramas, this effort instead thrives on continual action sequences, big set pieces, along with an ample dose of silliness, eccentric behavior, and devilish humor, where the onscreen personas add a playful yet cherished element of nostalgia, like seeing Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson onscreen. Their distinctive personalities bring an unmeasured charm and charisma to the screen, which certainly adds to the grandiose popularity in China, but feels like a breezy, lighthearted, gangster entertainment venture that may be attempting to have fun satirizing the inept, state sponsored corruption that passes for government in China, but the film takes no real political shots, only makes vague references shrouded in the good and evil western genre scenario that plays out. The finale especially suggests there remains a modern disconnect between the “people” and the “republic” of China that continues to operate through a Communist political structure where the theoretical benefits continue to elude the massive population at large. This silly and nonsensical action drama may subversively, through the liberated personalities of the stars, be as close to freedom of speech as can be found in China today.