When I reviewed Let the Bullets Fly at last year’s London Film Festival I found it to be a hugely enjoyable film, the experience of which was slightly marred by some sub-par subtitles. Given how I’d enjoyed the film I was very excited to learn it was finally getting a UK release courtesy of Metrodome/Epic Asia Films.
To set the scene: it’s China in 1920 - a land torn apart by warlords and lawlessness. A group of bandits await the arrival of a train which is actually just two carriages being pulled by several white horses (the steam being emitted from the chimney of the first carriage is actually from the hot soup they are eating rather than any method of propulsion). Ma Bangde (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau) are on their way to assume the mayorship of a small town which Ma has just purchased. That is, of course, until they run into fearless bandit Pockmark Zhang (Wen Jiang), who is most dismayed to discover all his efforts have been wasted as Ma was not carrying anything remotely valuable. Ma, crafty fellow that he is, comes up with the ultimate solution - pretending to be an assistant to the governor rather than the governor to be, he advises Zhang to assume the governorship himself and split the profits they’ll make by exploiting the poor, unsuspecting town’s people. After all, no one knows what the new governor is expected to look like so it doesn’t really matter who shows up and claims to be Ma Bangde, new governor of Goose Town.
However, on arrival it’s quite clear that there isn’t exactly a wealth of riches to be extorted in this little backwater town - whatever the villagers might have previously possessed they’ve already been well and truly fleeced several times over; not least by the town’s ‘patron’ Huang (Chow Yun Fat), who rules over the town like a feudal lord from his (well-fortified) country house on the outskirts of town. It’s quite clear that Huang feels he’s got something going here and he doesn’t want any undesirable elements coming in and disrupting his profit flow. Zhang, though, isn’t going to settle for the sort of second-rate deals his predecessors deigned to accept, so in short the two men are at something of an impasse. Goose Town is quite literally not big enough for the both of them and one thing is certain, many bullets are going to fly in this furious game of wits.
As I mentioned before, this is a film I enjoyed immensely the first time I saw it. The movie opens with a brilliant set piece as Zhang’s men put their intricate plan to derail Ma’s train into action, which is reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood Westerns (only with a much better sense of humour). It’s set in the twenties but the sensibility is clearly that of a cowboy film; it’s full of clever bandit tricks and dictatorial sheriffs that the people need to be protected from. Part of the reason the film did so well in China (it was at that point the highest ever grossing film in the country) was apparently that the theme of a corrupt petty official being taken down and power given back to the people spoke to modern’s China’s disillusionment with the increasing corruption in the system of local bureaucracies. Whilst I would never call this a political film, there is certainly something very appealing in Zhang’s honourable bandit who ends up on the side of exploited populace rather than trying to exploit them.
Although the bullets do fly and quite often, it’s the words that really zip past as the fast and funny repartee between Zhang and Huang provides a lot of the film’s comedic flair. Although it’s obviously quite hard to translate and do justice to the verbal dexterity employed in the film, the humour still comes shining through and it’s hard not to get caught up in the fast and furious vocal duelling of the two leads.
In short, this is simply a very entertaining film. It’s not a big, dumb action-fest either - there’s quite a lot going on here and it’s both really well written and very well shot. In Pocky, Zhang Jiang has created one of the best new characters of recent years. It seems I may be getting my wish not to have seen the last of him as a sequel of sorts is to be shot later this year, which may even develop into a Bullets trilogy. As well as being one of China’s greatest acting talents, Wen Jiang is also a fine director with a very unique outlook and we can only hope to see more of his films reaching our shores.