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If you happen to be a Chinese film producer, China looks like the Promised Land, if not the Wild West—a place that’s available, for the taking, with its doors wide open. (Though if you’re an activist in the marginal non-governmental sphere these days, the picture looks quite different). 2010 box-office numbers continued their exponential rise, with blockbuster hit succeeding blockbuster hit all the way to December. And the biggest box-office earner yet in Chinese movie history is Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly (Rang zidan fei). Released in December, Jiang’s eagerly awaited film raced past the record set by Feng Xiangang’s Aftershock (2010), which held up for a scant five months.
More and more screens, rising ticket prices, and a more affluent ticket-buying middle class means that records will continue to be broken rather rapidly (to the professional delight of these upbeat Chinese producers and investors). But Let the Bullets Fly owes its success to deliberate design. This Chinese action comedy connected with audiences and critics in an unprecedented way, earning a kind of across-the-board critical and public acclaim that I haven’t seen in the eight years I’ve been in China.
Jiang Wen himself is an icon: a star actor who established himself in the mid ‘80s with larger-than-life performances filled with overwhelming energy, technical brilliance, and masculine brio in Xie Jin’s Hibiscus Town (1986) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1988). His first film as director, the Cultural Revolution coming-of-age tale In the Heat of the Sun (1994), was a critical triumph: its modestly postmodern formal strategies and vividly emotional storytelling resonated with the unarticulated experiences of a generation of Chinese who grew up in the ‘70s, and remains the favourite local film of most of the Chinese film professionals I know. The film is unusual in depicting the Cultural Revolution as a free and almost blissful time for teens discovering love and desire, as opposed to seeing it as a time of violence, chaos, and unprecedented destruction. It proposed a kind of post-revolutionary post-romanticism, de-politicized and re-eroticized, that filled an emotional void in the imaginations of a generation of Chinese.
Jiang Wen’s second feature Devils on the Doorstep (2000) brought controversy when the Chinese government opposed its “unauthorized” entry into that year’s Cannes Competition, where it won the Grand Prix. A black-and-white, aggressively comic drama set during China’s WWII resistance to Japanese occupation, the film displays absurdities of wartime behaviour, the craziness inherent in maintaining appropriately functional levels of fear and loathing of the enemy. Putting its Chinese civilians in a less than flattering light, it pushed too many “sensitive” political buttons for the government, who banned it from exhibition in China.
Seven years passed before Jiang released The Sun Also Rises (2007), though he acted in films for other directors in the meantime. A complicated, multi-layered romantic/comic drama set largely in 1976, the film is a challenge to watch, a near-masterpiece whose peculiarities—a tricky non-chronological narrative structure and an addiction to Jiang Wen’s style of charging momentum that’s usually full-speed, full-energy ahead—fit uncomfortably with its operatic range and visual splendour. Jiang wants to create a segmented film structure that might capture, indirectly and discreetly, a fractured sense of China’s evolution from its late-‘50s Soviet period to the end of the Cultural Revolution (here seen as far less benign than depicted in his debut). It’s a rewriting of Chinese socialism, from its orthodox high point to its collapse under Maoist radical pressure. The film is built on the fractured sense of history and personal identity that results from such pressure, as well as a hurtling narrative speed symptomatic of an indigestible whiplashing change in Chinese politics and society. With such an ambitious agenda, no wonder the film met with a puzzled reception both at its Venice premiere and at the local box office.
With Let the Bullets Fly, Jiang Wen and his team have a clear agenda to synchronize their creativity with the new Chinese film market. Bullets preserves the most popular elements of its immediate predecessor and irons out the idiosyncrasies that kept audiences (and critics) at a distance. If a blockbuster was the plan, then Jiang’s success is unmitigated.
The experience of watching the film can be quite thrilling, insofar as highly verbal populist entertainment can still thrill a spectacle-trained contemporary audience. Let the Bullets Fly is intensely theatrical in the way it stresses dialogue and performance. It’s almost as if Jiang Wen has taken the more popular, accessible bits of Shakespeare as his dramaturgical guide. In Chinese, the dialogue is vivid, lyrical, and secular-poetic in its simple rhythms and repeated cadences. The feel is often close to verse, though the words are colloquial, vernacular. The three main leads are cast perfectly for the verbal acuity required. No one is better than Chinese box-office king Ge You (most famous in the West for his leading role in Zhang Yimou’s To Live, for which he won the Best Actor prize at Cannes in 1994) at wittily inflecting sharp lines with an acidly contemporary bite: as Ma Bangde (aka Councillor Tang), he’s also a fine ham, but keeps his theatrics within his character’s parameters. As the main villain Huang Silang, Chow Yun-fat comes closest yet to recreating that kind of larger-than-life charismatic presence that used to seem effortless for him in the Cantonese productions he once dominated in Hong Kong. And as bandit leader Zhang Muzhi, Jiang Wen (once even sporting a very Hamlet-like vest and ruffled shirt) combines a dominating, tangible physical presence with verbal power: think a super-macho version of Kenneth Branagh, if not Olivier. These three stars propel almost all of the films verbal set-pieces (the others, based on gunplay and chases, offer more conventionally cinematic thrills) with balanced, matching volleys and counter-volleys of high-tempo line readings. Jiang keeps the visual plan of the film tightly connected to its verbal conception, with bright, clear graphic design principles dominating: huge colour fields, vibrant, saturated colours, and easily legible, strikingly symmetrical compositions. It feels like stage design, re-imagined seamlessly for the big screen.
But Jiang Wen is not only a master populist in the manner of, say, Feng Xiaogang. His films reveal a Chinese artist bearing the typical crushing burden of “responsibility for the Nation,” something this country’s artists have borne since at least the Qin dynasty. Jiang is an institution, a powerful national figure with a strong sense of his own cultural significance. His films together take on the project of reinterpreting and reconfiguring Chinese history. With exactly what ideological commitment, though, is an open question. Critical readings of Bullets in Chinese have distributed themselves more or less evenly along the political spectrum: an arch-Maoist allegory; a post-socialist or post-capitalist text; a subversive anti-Communist work. Can it be all of these? A brief look at the genre, plot, and characters of the film can show how it presents a corresponding allegory for almost every kind of ideologically engaged viewer.
Let the Bullets Fly is first and foremost a revolutionary Western, set in the ‘20s during the politically turbulent era that followed the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty. In proto-republican China, warlords vied for control of large territories. Zhang Muzhi (Jiang Wen) is an outlaw. With six bandit followers, he captures the new would-be County Governor Ma Bangde of Goose Town (Ge You) and his wife (Hong Kong star Carina Lau). To save his own life, Ma leads Zhang to Goose Town to share the fortune that can be made squeezing taxes out of the townspeople. But the local warlord/opium dealer/human trafficker Huang Silang (Chow Yun-fat) stands in their way. Through various complicated stratagems involving gunplay, thievery, masked deception, and lots of verbal jousting, these three vie for control of the town and its riches.
There’s an element of an Eastern “Western” in Jiang Wen’s film: a charismatic gunslinger/outlaw comes into town with his gang, propelled by a spectacular train heist. He proceeds to take on the local bully/despot, and from his outlaw space—usurping agencies of state control, but functioning even better as a guarantor of law-abiding peacefulness and social justice—overthrows the despot, establishes a new kind of moral order, then moves on. Jiang takes a genre that originally mythologized the expansion of the American frontier and the establishment of free-range individualism and nimbly tweaks it to fit both the chaotic Chinese warlord era prior to Communist control, and, by implication, the current post-Communist (but definitely not post-Party) return to a wild, laissez-faire regime of unregulated aggressive capital and tenuous central control.
Chow Yun-fat’s depraved, corrupt, and powerful monopoly-capitalist Huang Silang appears to be the purest villain of the piece: brilliant but dishonourable, lacking moral restraints. He could be, in allegorical terms, an embodiment of the corrupt capitalist base of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, the “Nationalist” party who temporarily brought a kind of order to warlord-ridden China shortly after the period in which this film takes place, and who were subsequently overthrown by the Communists in 1949, partly because the Kuomintang’s venality and corruption drove people to the CCP. Or Huang Silang could equally well incarnate the nexus of local power and corruption that has taken over the Communist Party since Deng Xiaoping introduced capitalist reforms after 1979 and Jiang Zemin opened the floodgates to massive official corruption in the ‘90s.
Ge You’s Ma Bangde is a fascinating weasel: he’s out for money, period. His loyalty is to whomever will give him access to wealth, and he flits between Zhang Muzhi and Huang Silang according to his sense of where the balance of power lies. So is this man a stand-in for the incipient Chinese bourgeoisie, looking for an angle to exploit, loyal only to the accumulation of capital? Or is he an avatar of the bourgeois intellectual class of China today, facile with language and ever so carefully calculating its dependent relationship to power? Perhaps he’s even closer to China’s emerging ultra-rich elite, whose expedient alliances with the Party enable them to transfer vast amounts of formerly public wealth and property into their own hands.
The most enigmatic figure is Jiang Wen’s Zhang Muzhi, whose own identities are multiple. He is Muzhi, former soldier in the Xinhai Revolutionary Army and something of a complicated idealist. At the same time, he impersonates the fearsome bandit Zhang Mazi, pillaging towns in the area of Sichuan where the film is set. (All three main characters, in fact, have double identities: Huang Silang has an idiot double for protection, and Councillor Tang is in fact Ma Bangde, the would-be County Governor in waiting.) He’s also very clearly Jiang Wen playing someone much like Jiang Wen, the dominant force and omnipresent onscreen auteur of the film. Jiang is immediately present, maintaining control with his macho dominance of shot and setting and tone, and exploiting all his gifts: physical charisma, theatrical verbal command, and a powerful moral charisma emanating from the Jiang Wen persona well known to (and revered by) Chinese audiences.
No simple thief, Zhang Muzhi scorns the fortune that he seems to be seeking from Huang Silang, letting the townspeople pillage in his stead. He’s a theorist of power and will; a promiscuous blend of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and Mao; and a charismatic wielder of violence who teaches, in a memorable speech, that authority and a gun together command respect and establish order. At times he seems to be wielding something like moral authority: he offers to enrich the poor and empower them to rid themselves of despot Huang. There is definitely a stylized pre-Maoist revolutionary in here, charging into the town and attempting to raise the consciousness of the peasants to foment revolution. But at most these benighted townsfolk become little versions of Ma Bangde, calculating the wind and grabbing what they can, when it’s safe. Perhaps they more closely resemble the vast body of Chinese citizens today, who, resistant to more than 40 years of ideological indoctrination, display not the slightest shred of socialist values in their aggressively fanned aspirations to earn and consume as much and as fast as possible.
Where does that leave us with Jiang Wen’s character? There is a key bit of dialogue towards the end of the film that’s quite short (and doesn’t give away much, if you haven’t seen the film yet). Zhang Muzhi and Huang Silang are conversing. Zhang asks Huang, “What’s more important to me, you or your money?” When Huang can’t decide, Zhang tells him “to be rid of you is more important.” Zhang here denies that he seeks wealth (he’s no Ma Bangde), nor does he seek power (he’s not Huang the despot). Zhang seeks only the absence of despotism, the annihilation of exploitation, the obliteration of repression. But he does it as a particularly charismatic figure, one whose seductive allure and authoritarian aura (not to mention his utter comfort with bloody murder when he deems it necessary) might give one pause. What sort of a replacement for despotism is this blood-soaked, charismatic populism?
We can worry as long as we like about the politics of the film, and Jiang’s careful metaphorical construction has set up such a multivalent ideological machine that no specific readings—especially “sensitive” ones, in the context of the current Chinese government crackdown—can dominate. In fact, audiences have been discussing and debating the film’s meanings. I’ve seen versions of most of the above readings in vigorous online debates about the film. One is reminded of Mao’s dangerous slogan, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” that ushered in a brief reform in 1957 (before the terrifying crackdown of the Anti-Rightist Movement). Encapsulated within the bubble of an entertainment product, the film’s apparent ideological self-neutering lets it get away with a lot: mocking revolutionary masses and at the same time glorifying mass rebellion; satirizing the Party as a corruption machine and upholding elite-led class struggle; imposing justice through violence and deposing corrupt autocracy.
Once we work through the full range of political overtones, we’re left with Jiang Wen himself. His worldview has something in common with what is called the “red aristocracy” of China today. This group is made up of the now middle-aged members of China’s rising new elite who owe their privileged positions, at least in part, to being children of the “Red” elite (Communist Party or PLA officials) from the People’s Republic’s more socialist era. Born into an army family, Jiang had a privileged youth in Beijing that was reflected in In the Heat of the Sun’s idyllic version of leisure in the capital during the Cultural Revolution. Bullets’ idealizing mode, its fairy-tale version of early revolutionary history, is not atypical. Likewise is the film’s disdain for the hoi polloi and its reverence for an inspirational leader. We’re left with something like de-specified Red nostalgia, abstracted into shining legend.
If one sets aside all the commentary and metaphoric spinning, Let the Bullets Fly is fundamentally Jiang Wen’s ploy to connect with a mass Chinese audience, wrapped in an implied auto-critique of the failure of his last film, salted with enough audience-activating pleasure to create the greatest audience-drawing success in Chinese film history. Jiang does it all, and wins every game he’s playing. The references back to The Sun Also Rises are unmistakable (not the least thanks to the constant quoting of various themes from that film’s Joe Hisaishi score). In a rare interview, Jiang has expressed disappointment at the audience’s rejection of his prior film, which he sees as his most personal statement and most ambitious work. But where that film’s narrative complexities left mass audiences behind. Bullets does the exact opposite, without pandering: it offers real enjoyment, simplified sometimes, but still based on solid dramaturgic and cinematic skills. The film is a pleasure machine, but a vigorous, creative, super-energetic one that pumps out energy, premixed for instant satisfaction and surefire word-of-mouth appeal. It’s the mainstream future of Chinese cinema, an industry poised for commercial success at Bollywood or even Hollywood levels, soaring in the wind of China’s seemingly unstoppable rise.