Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mad Dogs and Chinamen

Chow Yun-fat and hosts (Image: Emperor Motion Pictures and Kong-Cast)

I always feel guilty about not attending much of the Tribeca Film Festival, and I always vow that next year it will be different - but there's so much stuff!  I just get overwhelmed and kind of give up, seeing only one or two movies.  The must-see this year that cut through my option-induced paralysis was Let the Bullets Fly, which recently broke the record for China's highest-grossing domestic film ever, and, more to the point, was reputed to be very good and, perhaps even more to the point, marks the now-sadly-rare occasion of a major vehicle for Hong Kong supernova Chow Yun-fat, still quite possibly the coolest man alive.

(Image: Emperor Motion Pictures
I'm not intending to make this the Blog of Asian Action-Comedy-Quasi-Westerns (see my earlier review of The Good, The Bad, The Weird) - it's just coincidence.  And this is by far the better example.  Actor/director Jiang Wen achieves a rather remarkable feat: he retains much of the abrasive idiosyncrasy of his previous directing work (which has kept it on the margins of China's commercial cinema, even while he's a big star as a performer), while hybridizing it with crowd-pleasing bang-bang entertainment.  He's clearly come a long way since his Cannes-award-winning Devils on the Doorstep (2000) got him on the Chinese government's naughty list, threatening to stall his career, but it looks like he's still the same guy.  The results leave me once again wondering why Hollywood can't be bothered to make its big, loud action blockbusters this clever, angry and unpredictable.

The story is set during the 1920's warlord period, when China was divided among bloodily competing factions following the collapse of the old imperial system.  Jiang plays "Pocky" Zhang, the leader of a rural bandit gang which descends upon a train in the bravura opening sequence, sending it flying engine over caboose into a river (in some dodgy CGI work that fortunately does not get repeated much).  Informed that he's just killed the newly-appointed governor of the "Goose Town" region, on his way to take his post, he decides to go for the long con for once.  Stealing the politician's identity, Zhang swaggers into town with his cohorts, prepared to do what a genuine politician would have done anyway - bleed the place dry of cash before moving on.  But he discovers that the real local power is Huang (Chow Yun-fat), a gangster boss thinly disguised as businessman and community pillar, and that the governor is expected to be merely a well-remunerated toady.  Naturally, a battle of wills (and occasionally weapons) ensues, or there wouldn't be a story.

L to R: Chow, Jiang Wen and Ge You: faces you can trust.
(Image: Emperor Motion Pictures and Sigma News Network)

As it turns out, there's actually enough story for three or four movies, and enough dialogue for about ten.  It feels like there's a plot twist every five minutes of its 2-hour-plus length, every one of the four principals has his or her identity called into question at some point, and characters spend even more time rat-a-tat-tatting each other with lightning-lipped lies, evasions, flatteries and insults than with bullets.  It could be called Let the Bullshit Fly, and I mean that in the best possible way.  The screenplay (written by Jiang and five collaborators) is a showcase of quotable quotes ("You're Pocky Zhang?  Where are your pockmarks?" someone inquires suspiciously. "Does Huang have 'Huang' written all over his face?" comes the barked retort.)  The logghorea is exhilarating, even if my eyes got tired trying to keep with the subtitles and look at the images.  This is a rare movie where the editing is faster in the dialogue scenes than in the action setpieces - I'm normally not a fan of the "cut-to-whoever's-talking-now" approach, but Jiang's crafty rhythmic use enhances the galloping staccato delivery of the lines.

And it isn't just the words - wry visual gags abound.  Zhang's bandits go by numbers instead of names, and each wears an absurd white mask mimicking the appropriately numbered tile from the ubiquitous Chinese game of mahjong (we get a funny throwaway image of one of them smoking a cigarette through a tiny hole in the middle).  I was also quite fond of the coffins on zip lines used to carry out mid-funeral abductions.

The cast is fine as well, none more so than Jiang, unmistakable with his wry ugly/handsome mug, marked by the sleepy-lidded eyes of a slacker-delinquent hiding his smarts, and the jug-handle ears that have been a trademark since he became a star in the epoch-making Red Sorghum in 1988.  Ge You is somehow revolting and sympathetic as the dead governor's cringing, scheming aide (or is he?), who is roped into Pocky's plot.  Surprisingly, the great Chow, as both godfather Huang and the idiot double he keeps around for security purposes, is the least-strong link.  He's fun for a while, but cranks the charisma so far it goes around the dial back to off-putting - a manic-comic turn that's both virtuosic and, frankly, a little irritating by the end.  Another living Hong Kong legend, Carina Lau, fares better, in a perfect, tart and vinegary performance as the governor's shamelessly scheming widow (or is she?).

Carina Lau and Jiang Wen in negotiations.
(Image: Emperor Motion Pictures & May Daily

None of this is to say that Let the Bullets Fly will be everyone's idea of a fun time, even among those who can keep up with what's going on.  I can already hear the mosquito-like tones of one of the most boring of critical complaints - "There's no one to care about."  The characters are all cold-hearted and brutal users to one extent or another, and the movie does little to sugarcoat them, aside from making you laugh at them.  Major characters who meet violent deaths are rarely given even a cursory sentimental sendoff - the movie merely pauses to carom a few extra gags off the latest corpse before charging on to the next twist.  And far from being merely escapist, Bullets is up front with its real and cutting satirical contempt for government officials, leading citizens and other self-proclaimed protectors of the common folk ("I finally figured out why I became a bandit," Pocky mutters at one point.  "I'm no match for these people.").  And herein lies the link between the blockbuster Jiang, and the Jiang of the notorious Devils on the Doorstep.  

That film, about World War II-era villagers reluctantly guarding a captured Japanese soldier while making tireless use of the epithet "turtle-fucker," was a sort-of-comedy as black as a demon's heart and scalding as a faceful of lye.  It spat in the eye of officially approved pieties about that era, portraying its Chinese civilians as venal, cowardly, vicious and stupid more often than not (kind of like Bullets).  In some ways, it was a snarling rejoinder to Red Sorghum and its more romanticized portrait of rural bumpkins battling amongst each other before joining to face down the Japanese invaders.  Unsurprisingly, it was never released domestically and got its creator in some hot water.  

But Jiang Wen doesn't take the route to success that his Sorghum director Zhang Yimou did when he got sick of being in the official doghouse - blending pop spectacle with overt totalitarian apologia in the 2002 martial arts epic Hero.  Jiang goes a subtler and more devious way.  Admittedly, the political subtext in Bullet is muddied enough to allow of varying interpretations - a quick internet search turns up reviews that claim it's apolitical, or that it thumbs its nose surreptitiously at the Chinese government, or even one rather dull-witted and selective review that claims it's a straight-up pro-Communist allegory.  I lean somewhat towards the second camp.  The movie's generalized contempt of authority would probably be enough to bring down trouble if it weren't set in the warlord era, thus chiming with official doctrine about that dark period before the Chinese Communist Party really got down to liberating everyone.  But then there are scenes like the one in which "Governor" Pocky Zhang stages a frantic propaganda show in the public square against archnemesis Huang, complete with music, dancers, chanting of slogans - and an enormous red flag with yellow symbols backing it all.  The cheeky resemblance to CCP agit-prop performances is difficult to miss - either the censors didn't notice or they're getting complacent.

To sum up, beneath the gloss, we're still firmly in the dog-eat-dog world of Devils, and in Jiang's chest still beats the heart of a four-fanged, foam-flecked stray howling madly in the middle of the main street and making the dog-catcher cower and run the other way.  But he's put on a winking smiley face that's gotten the Chinese mass audience, and the even more crucial audience of the censors' office, to walk right up and put their hand in the dog's mouth with a grin.
[Here's an interesting little Hollywood Reporter article on the possible political implications of the movie, which I'm of course linking here because it backs up my view.]

"I will make you gaze upon human cupidity and cruelty, and you will like it."
(Image: Emperor Motion Pictures & CriEnglish)

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