Thursday, 13 October 2011


It might be hard to imagine Sergio Leone with a Chinese sense of humour, but if you can, you will probably enjoy Let The Bullets Fly, which plays in this year's London Film Festival and is one of the most entertaining movies on offer. With its knowing combination of plot twists, characters unwilling to take themselves too seriously, and homage, it turns 1920s China into a half-gangster, half-western romp.

Although it's based on a story by a Sihuanese writer, the screenplay's immediate model would appear to be Fistful of Dollars. In this case a bandit, 'Pocky' Zhiang, having blown up a luxury train carrying a con-man named Ma who had been appointed the new governor of Goose Town, takes over Ma's role. But Goose Town is controlled totally by a warlord, Huang. Zhiang, in effect, plays Ma off against Huang, in the tradition of Red Harvest and Yojimbo, but and former governors have found both little profit and short life-expectancy. In this case, the plot's twisting is, if anything, more intricate than its models, especially because Ma's wife continues to play governor's wife, with Zhiang. The Leone-ine roots are made apparent in the scene set of Goose Town, especially its clock tower, but also in the script itself, where the characters have to explain the English word 'dollars'--a knowing wink too at Chow Yun-Fat, who plays Huang, and of course is well known in the west, where he has made a lot of dollars.

What makes it work is the interplay between the three leads: Jiang Wen, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, plays Zhiang as half thug half philosopher—not that there isn't a casual sort of violence and indifference, which is part of both the Leone and Chinese traditions. As Huang, Chow gets to indulge his great talent for comedy, playing against the expectations he brings to characters. He also plays Huang's double, recruited for his safety, and not the firmest noodle in the bowl—it reminded me of Chow in God of Gamblers, where he played his character regressed to childhood after being wounded in the head: a performance that conceded nothing to, say, Tom Hanks in Big. The beauty of the film is that Zhiang isn't really the man in the middle, it's the conman Ma, played by You Ge with a brilliant combination of cunning and weakness. He's played off brilliantly against his wife, played by Carina Lau (right), who turns out to be the real brains behind the operation, and even more adept than he is at changing sides, at least on the surface. Yun Zhou tries as Flora, who drums the ceremonial drums and is a prostitute charged with spying for Huang, but the role doesn't really allow her much room except as a putative love interest. Added to the mix of ambiguity is a fake Pocky, complete with pockmarks (which the real Zhiang of course doesn't have), with the result that all the action is played out as part of a battle of wits, exactly the dynamic that drove Fistful and its sources.

Is Zhiang really in it for the money? Is he after revenge, once his number one 'son' is killed? Will he be betrayed by Ma? Loaded with slapstick humour to playoff against its action, with martial arts and gun battles, and with the sort of twists that culminate in two groups of fake bandits wearing identical masks facing off against each other in a shadowy street, Let The Bullets Fly is immense fun, and remarkably satisfying. It is, apparently, China's biggest-grossing film ever, not least because Jiang needed a hit after his first film as director didn't do well, and it's easy to see why it was a hit. It played well at the Tribeca Film Festival (where Yun Zhou stole the show), and it should do the same here as well.

Let The Bullets Fly (China/Hong Kong 2010)
directed by Jiang Wen, screenplay by Jiang, Zhu Sujin, Shu Ping based on a story by Ma Shitu, plays the London Film Festival 19/20 October

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