Japan has its “Sukiyaki Westerns”, Korea has their “Kimchi Westerns” and China has its “Dimsum westerns“. Director/writer/star Jiang Wen’s “Let the Bullets Fly” is worthy of the critical acclaim it had received. It is fast, impishly clever, and very entertaining. Western audiences may form a disconnect with the grounds in which the story and script unfold, but Jiang Wen manages to keep its flow solid and fun. I was quite impressed that Jiang was able to keep everything free-flowing despite the fact that the film intentionally incoherent at times. “Let The Bullets Fly” retains its cultural identity and some very subtle political commentary in its clever delivery of black comedy.
Jiang Wen stars as Zhang Muzhi, a bandit who leads a pack of outlaws who are good with a gun. The group high-jacks a horse pulled train carrying a politician called Ma Bangde (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau). To get the better of his kidnappers, Ma pretends that he is merely a counselor to himself, but then finds himself kidnapped by Zhang’s group anyway. Zhang decides that thievery with governmental power may be fun as Zhang decides to take the governor post and goes to Ma’s next mark, the down-trodden town called Goose town. Here, Zhang comes across a huge obstacle with the resident godfather of the town, as a man called Huang (Chow Yun Fat) chooses to ignore Zhang’s authority.
The film’s title may give a lot of people the impression that this is a balls to walls action movie, especially with Chow Yun Fat in the mix, one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to expect another installment of bullet ballet. “Let The Bullets Fly” is more of a black comedy, while the film does have some action, it is not driven with any visceral displays of action or bloodshed. The film is driven by the character dynamics that Jiang Wen wisely weaves around its tapestry. The characters in the film look very cool, and they connect around the veil of humor dependent on wordplay and Chinese culture. The film can a chore to follow and is very ‘talky‘. The script is filled with double-talk, double-crosses, as Huang and Zhang try to outsmart the other. Much of the film is all about dialogue as the main characters try to stay a step ahead of the other. It can form a disconnect with English-speaking viewers, as I can tell that the film was more geared towards the Chinese viewer who understood Mandarin.
Sure, it can be confusing at times. But as soon as you get past the sharp fast talking dialogue and are able to grasp what is going on, a viewer can have loads of fun trying to keep up with the plots and schemes Huang and Zhang had come up with. Chow Yun Fat, Go You and Jiang Wen form a beautiful dynamic that may appear manic at times, but nonetheless, fit’s the way the script flowed around its layers. I know, Zhang and Huang may offer very little when it comes to depth, and the film does have a big cast of supporting characters that come and go, which makes it a bit annoying to keep up. It also shifts and changes its focus in a heartbeat, but then the shift begins to be tiresome at certain points in the screenplay. There is some great creativity here, but some folks may feel that it is ‘taking too long’ to get where it is going. Jiang does know how to manipulate the script, with the sharp editing and cool style, it is easy to look pass its flaws.
The film does have some action in the screenplay but it is more for show rather than to generate excitement and intensity. The action comes more in a rhythmic pace rather than gunplay. It is pretty standard action fare, as they chase, fire, and then pose with a lot of mucho macho John Woo coolness. The action is presented fast, smart and at a rhythm but not the John Woo stylistics of bullet ballet that Chow Yun Fat had become famous for.
“Let The Bullets Fly” also has some unfriendly political commentaries that may indeed prove to be unwelcome to China. Jiang spreads a lot of themes and ideas about corruption, suppression, bureaucracy and revolution. These are themes that may prove very uncomfortable to China which was why I was surprised that the film passed the censorship in that country. Jiang did know how to deliver the lines, they were very subtle but anyone can catch on what the movie was trying to say anyway. It entertains and thrills all the while making someone pick up on what it is trying to say politically and socially.
The film while imperfect and can be a chore to follow at a 2+ hour runtime, “Let The Bullets Fly” is all about action, sharp talky dialogue and a good time at the movies. The character dynamics and chemistry are all there, and with the rousing soundtrack and smart editing, the film comes across as something clever and incredibly cool. The way the camera work is shot expresses a lot of its moments in emotion and even non-emotion. Chow Yun Fat owned the screen with the way he commanded attention and the rest of the cast were able to make an impression without becoming standard ‘fillers’. This may be the Chinese commercial film to beat.