The Western is a quintessential part of American film culture. Its depictions of grizzled good guys on the verge of going bad have thrilled audiences in the States and elsewhere for decades. Stars like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne became larger-than-life folk heroes, courtesy of their gun-slinging roles in films such as A Fistful of Dollars and Stagecoach.
Although the Wild West of American folklore is quite literally a world away from the vast stretches of China, that didn't stop acclaimed Chinese director Jiang Wen from taking a stab at the genre with his latest venture, Let the Bullets Fly. Jiang's newest creation takes cues from the Western genre and adds a Robin Hood twist, with the Chinese Warlord Era serving as a backdrop.
Set in China during the tumultuous 1920's, Bullets stars a clever bandit by the name of Pocky Zhang (played by Jiang himself) who comes to a remote village and decides to rule the town by pretending to be the town's newlyhired governor.
However, Zhang and his accomplice Tang (Ge You) are met with opposition in the form of a local mobster named Huang (Chow Yun Fat), who rules over the town from a nearby fortified citadel. Although Zhang's aims are not entirely virtuous, he refuses to share his wealth with a mobster that he finds to be below himself. Bombastic gunfights, hard-boiled dramatics and razor-sharp battles of wit ensue.
The most notable Western influence appears in the development of Pocky Zhang, the bandit with a heart of gold. As a wanted man, he disappears to a remote village to cool his heels and make a few bucks. However, his notoriety proceeds him; as he rises from a mere bandit to a hero of almost mythological proportions, his intentions to fool the inhabitants of the village transform into a desire to help them rid the village of the evil mobster Huang. The mano-a-mano duel between the two criminals at the end of the film is a classic Western trope.
Although the film appears to be an all-out action flick at first glance, it has a great deal more depth to it than the average Hong Kong shoot-'em-up. Director Jiang reportedly went through over 30 revisions of the script before approving it for usage; his dedication to the film's dialogue makes it just as captivating to listen to as it is to watch. Action-comedy films have to walk a fine line between the two genres, but Jiang's script manages to satisfy the requirements of fans from both arenas.
Chinese films are sometimes criticized for being too heavy-handed in their politics; thankfully, Bullets refrains from being too heavily rooted in history. Its story and dialogue are easy to grasp, even for those that aren't particularly knowledgeable about China's past. Of course, a little bit of knowledge helps, but Bullets is a welcome departure from last year's Confucius and other films of its kind. Jiang even takes a few satirical jabs at corrupt government officials, something rarely seen on China's silver screens.
However, the most interesting facet of the film might just be its dark sense of humor. Never before has a Chinese director tackled such dark themes with such abandon and delight. Ritual suicide and dismemberment are played for laughs in Bullets; sometimes it's hard to know whether to chuckle or flinch. This is highly reminiscent of American Westerns, where grisly shootouts and hangings are not only expected, but occasionally treated with a degree of humor rarely found elsewhere.
An excellent script, artfully crafted dialogue and pulse-pounding gunfights are probably the best parts of Bullets, but its set design and overall appearance deserve a mention as well. The film's opening train crash sequence sets the tone for the rest of the flick, and the massive shootout that occurs in the scrublands surrounding the village is an excellent way to close the film.
Indeed, Bullets has all the ingredients for a major blockbuster, and bust blocks it did: the film's opening night saw 765,000 eager fans in theater seats across the country, even more than Avatar's debut of 763,000 here in China. Rights to reproduce the film have already been acquired by a major Hollywood studio, so American moviegoers may very well see their own version of Bullets in the not-too-distant future.