...right over my head ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

...right over my head

Let the Bullets Fly
My rating:

It's been a while since I reviewed a Chinese-language film (aside from two local productions). There just hasn't been anything from Hong Kong recently that caught my eye; on top of that, my favourite source for Hong Kong and other Pan-Asian film reviews has slowed down a lot recently, depriving me of information on Asian films worth looking out for. But Let the Bullets Fly was one that got a glowing review from LoveHKFilm. And it's finally here on Malaysian shores, but only through the GSC International Screens program, and showing only in three cinemas. I'm quite worried that it's on a limited run and will disappear from our screens before long, hence my decision to bump it up on my already-backlogged reviewing schedule. (Nur Kasih: The Movie and Kung Fu Panda 2 will just have to wait.)

And it is so very much worth it. But I have to admit, I almost gave up on writing this review.

In 1920s China, in the remote Sichuanese countryside, a bandit leader (Jiang Wen) robs a train carrying Ma Bangde (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau), on their way to the backwater Goose Town to take up the governor post. But Ma is actually a conman who buys gubernatorial posts to bilk the locals out of tax money - and he poses as his own (dead) counselor Tang to save his own skin from the bandits. The bandit leader meanwhile, decides to pose as Ma and play the con himself, and they all ride into Goose Town - which is controlled by local gangster Huang Silang (Chow Yun-Fat). Ma/Tang knows the game is to kowtow to the gangs and walk away with the money, but the bandit leader/Ma kneels to nobody, certainly not a murderous tyrant like Huang. And thus the stage is set for a battle of wits, wordplay, and whether or not the bandit leader/Ma is actually the fearsome "Pocky" Zhang whom even Huang fears... or does he?

Wow. This film is dazzling. Its title may lead you to expect a John Woo-style balls-out action movie, but it's actually... um, to be honest, it's hard to peg it into any particular genre. It's very funny, but its humour is of the pitch-black variety, in which blood gets spilled and spattered and it's meant to make us laugh (albeit uncomfortably). Zhang/Ma and Huang - with Ma/Tang possibly double-crossing and triple-crossing them both - do battle through cunning and trickery more than with guns, although when the bullets do fly, the action is fast and frenetic (and Zhang/Ma's bandit cohorts are totally badass). There are clear homages to Westerns, with its premise of a man riding into town and cleaning it up, but possibly befouling it a little bit more first. But whatever genre fields it plays in, it is always and ineluctably its own singular and terrifically unique creation - one that takes you for a ride through places you've never been.

Half of which whizzed by me so fast that I could barely keep up. Which brings me to why I almost made this my second ever non-review; it's an extremely dense and complicated plot, involving people lying to each other, knowing that they're lying, and knowing that they know that they're lying. It's also an extremely fast-moving plot, in which everything can turn on a single line of rapid-fire dialogue. And the dialogue is rich in Mandarin wordplay and Chinese cultural references, almost all of which flew over this shameful Chinese banana's head. (The English subtitles do a valiant job, but more than one instance the largely-Chinese audience laughed at something that sounded perfectly innocuous in English.) And there's supposedly a fair bit of pointed satire in this movie, which I again missed because I am somewhat behind on my grasp of the current political scene in China.

Which means this is going to be a pretty lame review. If I'm going to review a film well, it is imperative that I actually understand it; my mantra as a film critic is to engage a movie on its own terms, and judge it by how well it accomplishes what it aims for. Watching Let the Bullets Fly often made me feel like a bystander listening in on a conversation between an extremely intelligent and witty speaker and several enraptured listeners content to laugh at all his jokes. Another reason why I'm finding it hard to review this film is that it's also extremely unpredictable; as is the nature of black comedies, it's hard to pick a side to root for at first, since none of the three main characters are particularly admirable folks. I said at first, since eventually a clear protagonist (who is not above doing some pretty reprehensible things) and antagonist (who still adheres to his own code of honour) emerges.

But it was fun. Unpredictability at the movies is such a rare and precious thing; seriously, when was the last time you watched a film in which you honestly could not tell what was going to happen next, or how it would all end? A lot of the comedy was broad enough that it did translate well, or at least well enough to earn a laugh from me; one especially LOLworthy moment was when the bandit leader attempted a little acting, having previously been pegged as a lousy actor. All three main actors are terrific; Jiang Wen was super cool, Ge You was a total weasel yet strangely endearing, and Chow Yun-Fat gets to ham it up as both the gentlemanly gangster and his idiot double. (Yes, Huang has a double, and Chow is clearly having a ball playing him.) There's also solid support from Carina Lau as an unrepentant gold-digger, the band of young hunks who play the rest of the bandit gang, and Zhou Yun as the sweetly innocent prostitute who tames these men's hearts.

However, the real star of the show is Jiang - his direction, to be precise. Here is a director in absolute and consummate control of his film, right down to the occasionally fake-looking CGI which wouldn't surprise me if it was meant to be cheesy. Every stylized shot, every whip-pan, every lightning-quick edit, every line delivery is masterfully precise - and that extends to every plot twist, every Mandarin joke, and every subversive little jab that snuck past China's censors. I may not have gotten all (or even most) of it, but I do know I'll be getting this movie on DVD and taking my time to savour it. I reserve the right to revise my rating upward and giving it a high spot on my year-end list of 2011's best films. Even now, I'm already thinking it deserves 4-½ stars.

NEXT REVIEW: Nur Kasih: The Movie
Expectations: yay Kabir Bhatia!


k0k s3n w4i said...

i wasn't going to see this until i read your review. sounds like my sort of film.

tonight however, i'm going to catch x-men: first class.

McGarmott said...

Darn it, wanted to alert you guys earlier: do try to find my name amongst the visual effects credits for X-Men; I'm told it will be on there.

As for Let The Bullets Fly, I'd say that Jiang Wen is the closest thing to Tarantino China has. As for not understanding, well I speak Mandarin perfectly and I can tell you that I didn't get the political references (not one bit) and also that I may understand the jokes better than you, but that doesn't necessarily put me ahead of you by much in terms of understanding the plot points as they occur. It's typical of Jiang Wen's films. His last film was even more idiosyncratic, and no less enigmatic.

TMBF said...

@McGarmott: The Tarantino comparison is apt; I was reminded of him more than once while watching it. Though I find Tarantino's films more accessible than this one, even aside from the language barrier.

I'll watch out for your name. :)

zulfadhlimansor said...

i hope kick the hell out of nur kasih the movie... the movie i luve to hate....hehehheeee

k0k s3n w4i said...

McGarmott: Bah, you should have alerted me about your name in the credits earlier (you know, for a film blogger, you don't blog much about films... even about the ones you are credited in). I stayed till the end for the post-credits scene (there isn't any).

gwailo said...

please review toyol nakal, it looks very good

Adrian said...

best china film for this year