Do you want to see a Chinese film with Chow Yun Fat and guns? I have one for you: Let the Bullets Fly. It is an “Eastern Western” action comedy mixed in with political satire that, somehow, managed to avoid getting banned in China. And, yes, that guy pointing the gun at him is indeed the other Chinese guy from Rogue One.
Governor Ma, his wife, and Counselor Tang, are riding a horse-drawn train on their way to the town where Ma will assume control as mayor or governor. Or, at least, as much control as he could assume during the Era of the Warlords. Unfortunately, a man named Zhang and his band of “sons” attack the train with the intent of robbery and murder. They find no money, so they take Governor Ma and his wife hostage, under the impression that Ma is Counselor Tang and the actual governor died during the attack.
In hopes that his attack on the train will not be a complete loss, Zhang decides to pretend to be Governor Ma and takes the real Ma, who is pretending to be Counselor Tang, to the city, where he can use his position to get money from the citizens. “Tang”, however, informs Zhang that he will have to work out a deal with the rich families in the town, particularly a local crime boss named Huang, over how to take money from the poor. Zhang is unhappy with the prospect of being under the thumb of anyone else, particularly of people whom he would rather rob. And when Huang tries to press Zhang into submitting to him, it leads to a war of wits, words, and other weapons.
And…yeah. That goes on for 132 minutes.
“Eastern Western” is a bit of a silly term, as a lot of the Westerns were directly influenced by Eastern movies, such as the ones under Akira Kurosawa. And Kurosawa, in turn, was influenced by films coming from the West. The “Eastern Western” is just another step in this symbiotic give-and-take relationship. I have seen a few other “Eastern Westerns”, but they seemed a bit too into the novelty of it all and got wrapped up in their need to be homages. Perhaps my knowledge of Westerns is too limited to be a true judge, but I believe that Let the Bullets Fly managed to tell its own story and be its own movie.
With a title like Let the Bullets Fly and that little synopsis, one may think that this is a shoot-em-up film. And there are few gunfights, but they are secondary to the war of wits between Zhang and Huang. Some of the comedy comes from the fact that, during their several meetings, they almost always say nice things to each other, even when they are straight-up yelling. Sort of like mafia movies, except the scenes where adversaries yell at each other and play nice are combined. I would not necessarily call it civility, but their need to keep up appearances even after gunfights and multiple deaths gets more and more amusing. For sure, a lot of the humor that comes from cultural references and wordplay will be lost on foreign audiences (most of you), but there are plenty of funny bits left over.
While the ridiculous plot twists and convoluted escalation of the conflict drives some of the humor, the tone of the film is what makes it funny. The mood is almost like the comic Hong Kong Kung Fu films of Jackie Chan and really young Jet Li, but with brutal violence instead of slapstick. To be sure, there are plenty of Chinese comedies with this tone, but they are usually light fluff with much much less brutal violence.
When I first saw this film, I was shocked that it was not banned, as had happened with another Jiang Wen Film that I will talk about at some point. In fact, instead of getting banned, Let the Bullets Fly became one of the highest grossing mainland Chinese movie ever. And while that description has been rendered meaningless over the years with the dubious puffing up of things like Monster Hunt, The Mermaid, and Wolf Warrior 2, I still believe that the it has some significance here. There is a gleeful cynicism that flows through the film, which has been sadly missing from Mainland films of this scale for a while. That horse-drawn train is one of the first signals that this world is based upon lies and self-deception, the other being the beautiful song on the soundtrack giving way to the characters singing the same song horribly. Government corruption is a given, everyone has an angle, good deeds are usually done with questionable intentions, honor manifests itself mostly by accident, leadership comes only through force and deception, everyone is obsessed with money and social status, and everyone is pretending to be someone else while pretending not to know that everyone else is pretending as well as pretending that it is not obvious that everyone already knows all of this. And the delayed climax during last quarter of the film is a terrific send-up of the patriotic Chinese films as of late.
Characters rarely get scared. They can get angry and maybe nervous at times, but they treat the threat of death as more of an annoyance than anything else. And I remember only two instances where a character is shown to be sad. And then it is right back to strategizing. It is like a game of Risk or Laser Tag, but people actually get killed. If this makes the characters sound too cool for the room, rest assured that none of them are portrayed as cool. They are too busy to be cool. And funnier for it. The performances are hammy and sometimes quite over-the-top. Tempers can shift quickly and then shift again just as quickly.
Zhang and Huang are hero and villain only in a loose sense of the word. Zhang is a bandit and murderer. While he does have a sense of honor, it seems to be primarily his annoyance at having to be nice to the rich people that makes him focus on them. And it is only after Huang goes after his men that Zhang decides to make it clear that he is after Huang’s money specifically. Huang could have been a moustache-twirling villain, if he were not so busy dealing with Zhang. He treats Zhang alternately as an opponent in a really fun game and as a really annoying pest. And his lively and, perhaps a little flamboyant, demeanor, makes despicable decisions that much funnier. Chow Yun-Fat, who had been known as a comedic actor in the early 80s, is having the time of his life here as Huang.
Then there is Tang, who is really Ma. He may be the most corrupt person in the movie, having bought his governorship before Zhang stole it. His alliance with Zhang is tenuous at best, and he often becomes the butt of jokes. In a world full of tough guys, he seems to be one of the few who gets scared, which makes him come across as pathetic, but oddly sympathetic as well.
As for Zhang’s men, there is one scene in particular, where each explains how he is innocent of a certain crime, that reveals them to be not the shining paragons of virtue. It is played for laughs but…uh…erm…oh dear…let’s just move on. There are not that many women in the movie. Ma’s wife is more concerned with being the governor’s wife than Ma’s wife…and since Zhang is the pretty much the governor, she might as well be his wife. The only other female character of note is a prostitute who comes off a little more positively, but is still a prostitute. Just like most of the characters, she is rarely scared by all of the tension or threats of violence.
If such a cavalier attitude towards violence and the worse aspects of human nature does not appeal to you, then you might not like this movie. Actually, you may really really hate this movie, especially due to that one scene that I kind of danced around. But then, you might still like it. For the rest of you, I recommend it.
WTF ASIA 25: Nameless Gangster: The Rules of Time (South Korea: 2012, Approx. 134 minutes)
Free on Amazon Prime.
WTF ASIA 26: No One Killed Jessica (India: 2011, Approx. 137 minutes)
Available…on the internet.