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Jiang Wen’s “Let the Bullets Fly”

Is Jiang Wen's blockbuster the most subversive chinese movie ever made, or just an overblown action flick?

01·02·2013

Jiang Wen’s “Let the Bullets Fly”

Is Jiang Wen's blockbuster the most subversive chinese movie ever made, or just an overblown action flick?

01·02·2013

Chinese movie-goers excel at one thing: loving a film while hating it. Or, hating it while loving it. Viewers are fond of 边看边骂 (Biān kàn biān mà, cursing a film movie while watching it). So, it’s all the more laudable that actor-director Jiang Wen attained commercial and critical success with his latest film “Let the Bullets Fly.”

Released in December 2010, it quickly surpassed “Aftershock” as the highest grossing domestic movie. In its first week, “Bullets” earned 170 million RMB at the box office. Heading into the Lunar New Year, “Bullets” continued to fuel frenzied discussions all over the Chinese internet and spawning copycat merchandise (460 movie-inspired products on Taobao.com and counting).

Does Jiang, who is most known at home for playing the male lead in “Red Sorghum” and abroad for clinching a Cannes Grand Prix with “Devils on the Doorstep,” just have the magic touch? “Bullets” is a fast-moving, fast-talking country-western-slash-gangster-shoot-em-up-slash-socio-political-commentary of a black comedy. This mouthful of labels is what gives “Bullets” its appeal.

The premise is simple, but develops into many twists and turns. In the warlord-dominated 1920s, “Pock-marked Zhang” (Jiang), an infamous bandit leader hijacks a train carrying a wealthy man (played to conniving perfection by Ge You) who is on his way to yet another purchased post as a town governor. Sniffing a chance to make a buck, Zhang assumes the post himself, taking his hostage along to act as advisor. Once the caravan arrives in E Cheng (“Goose Town”), Zhang dukes it out with the local kingpin, Huang Silang (played by Chow Yun-Fat), for power, money and justice. In their struggle, the two sides spare no bullets, blood, or wit.

Zhang: Where’s the money?
Zhāng: Qián ne?
张:钱呢?

Ma: Spent it on buying the post.
Mǎ: Mǎi guānle.
马:买官了。

Zhang: Why buy a post?
Zhāng: Mǎi guān gànshénme?
张:买官干什么?

Ma: To make money.
Mǎ: Zhuànqián.
马:赚钱。

Zhang: How much?
Zhāng: Néng zhuàn duōshǎo?
张:能赚多少?

Ma: Double.
Mǎ: Yī bèi.
马:一倍。

“Bullets” is homegrown favorites’ Ge You and Jiang Wen’s first collaboration. Throw Hong Kong legends Chow Yun-Fat and Carina Lau, and other famous names, into the mix and the movie takes on an “Ocean’s Eleven” kind of sheen.

The ensemble cast fits into an intricate plot that has prompted comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” Handsome costuming—some of these bandits wouldn’t look out of place summering in Nantucket—also adds to the movie’s appeal. But the biggest draw is Jiang’s pitch black humor. Death, dismemberment, prostitution, homosexuality and oppression of the weak and poor are all treated as casual jokes.

This kind of humor, skittering along satirical, lewd, ludicrous and tragic lines, runs through the movie and creates threads of possible meanings. “Bullets” has set off nationwide analysis, and meta-analysis. Everyone has a theory for what the story really means. From shallow postulates like what zodiac signs fit each bandit, to serious analysis like Zhang as a prototype revolutionary, a Chairman Mao in disguise, the discussions have built “Bullets” up to be either “the most subversive Chinese film” or a patriotic homage.

Only Jiang can know the movie’s “true” political undertones. But a few themes make this a true socio-political commentary.

The movie begins and unfolds around corruption.

Ma: It’s too late! The last few governors levied taxes on Goose Town for the next ninety years—to 2010. We came to the wrong place!
Mǎ: Wǎnle! Qián jǐ rèn xiàn zhǎng bǎ é chéng de shuìshōu dào jiǔshí nián yǐhòule, yě jiùshì xīlì èr língyī líng nián. Zánmen lái cuò dìfāngle!
马:晚了!前几任县长把鹅城的税收到九十年以后了, 也就是西历二零一零年。咱们来错地方了!

Ma: Have you ever been governor?
Mǎ: Dāngguò xiàn zhǎng ma?
马:当过县长吗?

Zhang: No
Zhāng: Méi yǒu.
张:没有。

Ma: Let me tell you! A new governor in office has to concoct schemes. Get close to the gentry, get them to pay taxes. Only when they pay will the commoners follow. After you get the tax money, refund the gentry and split the commoners’ payments 30/70.
Mǎ: Wǒ gàosu gàosu nǐ! Xiàn zhǎng shàngrèn, de qiǎolìmíngmù, lālǒng háoshēn, jiǎo shuì juānkuǎn. Tāmen jiāole, cáinéng ràng bǎixìng gēnzhe jiāo qián. De qián zhīhòu, háoshēn de qián rú shǔ fènghuán. Bǎixìng de qián sānqī fēnchéng.
马:我告诉告诉你!县长上任,得巧立名目,拉拢豪绅,缴税捐款。他们交了,才能让百姓跟着交钱。得钱之后,豪绅的钱如数奉还。百姓的钱三七分成。

We quickly learn that the bandit isn’t just after money. He’s on a mission for justice. One of Zhang’s first acts as “governor” is to carve out the petitioner’s drum—in imperial times, commoners with grievances could beat on the drums to seek audience with officials.

Ma: Stop cutting, that’s not a tree! That’s the petitioner’s drum, used in Qianlong Emperor’s time. Over time, with disuse, it grew roots and leaves.
Mǎ: Zhè bùshì shù, bié kǎnle! Zhè shì yuān gǔ, qiánlóng nà shíhou shè de. Lǎo méi rén qiāo jiù shēngle gēn zhǎngle yè, jiù chéng xiànzài zhèyàngle.
马:这不是树,别砍了!这是冤鼓,乾隆那时候设的。老没人敲就生了根长了叶,就成现在这样了。

Little Six [Zhang’s son]: Father said if there’s a drum, there must be grievances. He wants to open court.
Liùzi: Wǒ diē shuōle, yǒu yuān gǔ jiù shuōmíng yǒu yuān. Tā shuō tā yào pàn gè’àn.
六子:我爹说了,有冤鼓就说明有冤。他说他要判个案。

Ma: What grievances? Who dares to have grievances? It’s been over a hundred years. If you cut the vines and reveal the drum, who knows what kind of grievances will come up!
Mǎ: Nǎ’er yǒu yuān ne? A? Shuí gǎn yǒu yuān ne? Zhè dōu yībǎi duōniánle. Nǐ yào bǎ tā kǎnle, bǎ gǔ lùchū lái, bùdìng chū duōdà yuān ne!
马:哪儿有冤呢?啊?谁敢有冤呐?这都一百多年了。你要把它砍了,把鼓露出来,不定出多大冤呐!

The band of righteous outlaws can’t take down the bad guys alone, so they try to incite a revolution. Zhang educates the townspeople on their rights and distributes money and weapons to mobilize them. But, people are creatures of habit. Or, they simply don’t care.

Townspeople: Oh, great and just master!
Lǎobǎixìng: Qīngtiān dà lǎoye!
老百姓:青天大老爷!

[They kneel and kowtow]

Zhang: [Firing gunshot into the air] Stop kneeling! The emperors are gone, no one is worth your kneeling! I’m not worth your kneeling! I came to Goose Town for three things only: justice, justice, justice!
Zhāng: Bù zhǔn guì! Huángshàng dū méiliǎo, méi rén zhídé nǐmen guì! Wǒ yě bù zhídé nǐmen guì! Wǒ lái é chéng zhǐ bàn sān jiàn shì. Gōngpíng! Gōngpíng! Háishì gōngpíng!
张:不准跪!皇上都没了,没人值得你们跪!我也不值得你们跪!我来鹅城只办三件事。公平!公平!还是公平!

Townspeople: Oh, great and just master!
Lǎobǎixìng: Qīngtiān dà lǎoye!
老百姓:青天大老爷!

[They kneel again]

Zhang: Stand up! Stop kneeling!
Zhāng: Zhàn qǐlái! Bù zhǔn guì!
张:站起来!不准跪!

The general apathy that greets Zhang’s valiant efforts gives “Bullets” its tragic air. After distributing weapons in the town square, Zhang tries to incite a revolution to no avail.

[The bandits ride around the town square trying to rally the people]

Bandits: Take your guns and follow me! Kill Silang, pillage his mansion!
Tǔfěi: Qiāng zài shǒu, gēn wǒ zǒu! Shā sìláng, qiǎng diāolóu!
土匪:枪在手,跟我走!杀四郎,抢碉楼!

Bandits: Big Brother, look. They’re the only ones who followed us [points at a flock of geese]. Nobody wants to help us!
Tǔfěi: Dàgē, dàgē nǐ kàn. Gēn wǒmen lái de zhǐyǒu tāmen! Gāoxìng zǎole, méi rén bāng zánmen!
土匪:大哥,大哥你看。跟我们来的只有它们!高兴早了,没人帮咱们!

Zhang: I get it. They’ll help whoever is on the winning side!
Zhāng: Míngbáile! Shuí yíng tāmen bāng shuí!
张: 明白了!谁赢他们帮谁!

Apart from the nameless masses, a central character—the fake governor’s wife—also displays a telling apathy and materialistic outlook on life.

Zhang: Madame, I’m after money, not sex. We sleep in the same bed, but I won’t touch you. Here’s a gun—if I do anything, you can kill me. But if Madame has any requests, I wouldn’t refuse. Now, sleep!
Zhāng: Fūrén, xiōngdì wǒ cǐ fān zhǐ wèi jié cái, bù wéi jié sè. Tóng chuáng dàn bù rù shēn. Yǒu qiāng zài cǐ, ruòshì xiōngdì wǒ yǒu màofàn fūrén de jǔdòng nǐ kěyǐ suíshí gàndiào wǒ. Ruòshì fūrén yǒu rènhé yāoqiú xiōngdì wǒ yě jué bù tuīcí. Shuìjiào!张:夫人,兄弟我此番只为劫财,不为劫色。同床但不入身。有枪在此, 若是兄弟我有冒犯夫人的举动你可以随时干掉我。若是夫人有任何要求兄弟我也决不推辞。睡觉!

Madame: If we are husband and wife…
Fūrén: Yī rì fūqī bǎi rì ēn ne……
夫人:一日夫妻百日恩呐……

[Zhang jumps up at the invitation]

Madame: [Laughs] I just want to be the governor’s wife; I don’t care who’s governor!
Fūrén: Fǎnzhèng ne, wǒ jiù xiǎng dāng xiàn zhǎng fūrén. Shuí shì xiàn zhǎng, wǒ wúsuǒwèi!
夫人:反正呢,我就想当县长夫人。谁是县长,我无所谓!

The movie has its flaws: a few cheap laughs, awful computer graphics and takes everything to excess. The rapid-fire dialogue with no English subtitles, abundant cultural and historical references makes “Bullets” a challenge for the foreign viewer. But, Jiang’s indomitable wit, bravado and socio-political sensibilities make this an entertaining film, if not a thought-provoking one. “Let the Bullets Fly” well deserves the praise, and box office receipts, that it has received.