The Good, The Bad, The Weird meets a twisted Yojimbo via Kung Fu Hustle in director/star Jiang Wen’s action comedy starring Chow Yun-fat on fine hilarious form…
Set in the warring China of the 1920s, notorious bandit ‘Pocky’ Zhang (Jiang Wen, The Lost Bladesman, The Sun Also Rises) raids the train of Governour Tang (Ge You, Lifetimes, A World Without Thieves, The Banquet), on his way to take office in Goose Town. Tang pretends to be his own councillor, offering Zhang the role instead under the pretence of making more far more riches as an official than he could as a bandit.
Zhang accepts, only to find the town under the control of the villainous warlord Huang (played by a wonderfully over-the-top Chow Yun-fat, The Killer, Confucius, Full Contact). The film then becomes something of a game of wits between the trio, with no one quite knowing or trusting the other players – but for Zhang it quickly becomes much more personal than simply about making money…
Jiang’s ‘Eastern Western’ has been phenomenally successful in China. As noted by several reviewers it’s story wide open for any number political interpretations, but the conscientious seems to be that all public officials are crooked to some degree or another – an suggestion that sure seems to have struck a chord in with audiences there (and likely just about everywhere else!), becoming China’s highest grossing film of all time.
Though packed with thrills and action, this hardly feels like patriotic and often preachy films aimed towards Chinese audiences – perhaps that accounts for much of this box office success? Surprise, surprise, audiences don’t like to be lectured – who’d have thought it?
Jiang is probably best recognised for his recent appearance in Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s The Lost Bladesman as the most complex incarnation we’ve seen yet of the Cao Cao figure from all the various takes on the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms. Of course his career goes back to the mid 80s, including Zhang Yimou’s debut feature Red Sorghum (which introduced Gong Li to the world), and would later collaborate with Zhang for Keep Cool.
In the years since Jiang has been a reliable, if not exactly prolific, figure in Chinese and Hong Kong films, he’s directed several previous films, including Devils on the Doorstep and The Sun Also Rises (though he does have a tendency to give himself the best role) but this is easily the nearest to a ‘crowd pleaser’. Perhaps his most celebrated appearance was as the star of Lu Chuan’s (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, City Of Life And Death) debut feature The Missing Gun.
Kim Jee-Woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird seems an obvious influence, as is Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (and various versions there of) as Zhang and Huang play off each other in a small town setting. In tone, the film shares much with those of Stephen Chow, particularly Kung Fu Hustle, but with a much blacker vein of humour. In once scene, one of Zhang men is tricked into cutting his stomach, almost Seppuku style, to prove he only had one plate of jelly from a restaurant owner. He even places the jelly, still undigested, back onto a plate – both funny and totally gross!
There are many standout scenes, such as when Zhang’s men and Huang’s, both disguised as bandits under masks, run into each other on the streets of the town. Unable to tell who is who, the gangs create a circle pointing their guns at each other, like a massively exaggerated version of the now-clichéd manoeuvre made famous by Hong Kong directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam.
Unsurprisingly, considering Chow’s presence and the title, there’s more than a little of John Woo style shootouts on show. Sure, the bullets really fly, but often the production doesn’t fulfil Jiang’s ambition. There’s a few shocking examples of CGI, and eagle right at the beginning of the film and train carriage allegedly sent flying into the area, that are so poorly rendered as to make you wince with embarrassment for all involved.
Based on a story by Sichuanese writer Ma Shitu, according to web reports, the script went through some 30 drafts before Jiang was happy with it. Despite that, the film still feels quite messy. Certain aspects come from nowhere, while other plotlines seem dropped or unresolved. It’s also just too long for it’s own good, unable to sustain it’s momentum over the last half hour.
What really makes the film are the central performances of Jiang Wen and Chow Yun-Fat. Chow in particular seems to revel in this rare chance for him to play comedy, also appearing as a ditsy body double. Likewise Carina Lau has fun as Tung’s wife, happy to pretend to be Zhang’s wife in order to keep the pretence going, though it’s all too brief.
Worth seeing for Chow Yun-fat’s performance alone, but I’m still not sure I understand why it’s been quite this successful in China…
Let The Bullets Fly was shown as part of the London Film Festival 2011, and is released on UK DVD by Epic Asia Films/Metrodome on 27 August 2012.
Review originally published 24 October 2011.
Home media details
Distributor: Epic Asia Films / Metrodome Distribution (UK)
Edition: DVD (2012)
A welcome domestic UK release for Jiang Wen’s film, with a sharp picture and sound quality, but absolutely no special features or extras at all!
Something of a surprise coming several months after the US DVD and Blu-Ray, which at least included a making of and interviews. Oh well, at least the subtitles ARE removable, and the DVD comes at a bargain price of £6.00 on Amazon (at the moment!)