By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
By the time the viewer is 20 minutes into director Wen Jiang’s new Chinese historical comedy “Let the Bullets Fly,” the legendary bandit “Pockmark” Zhang (played by the director himself) is impersonating the local governor.
Actually, another con man (played by You Ge) was impersonating the governor first. But Zhang waylaid the first fraudster and bullied him into impersonating the governor’s sidekick, not the actual governor.
Zhang has his own reasons for pretending to be a politician. They involve getting up close and personal to crime boss Master Huang (played by legendary Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat). But Master Huang, who for all intents and purposes controls the local Sichuanese landscape, isn’t easy to get to know. For one thing, he employs a body double (Chow Yun-Fat again), and you can never tell whether you’re speaking to the one and only Master Huang.
And as for the real governor? He is never onscreen in the first place. With so many characters pretending to be what they are not, “Let the Bullets Fly” becomes confusing early on in its 132 minutes, and it stays that way.
Matters become more complicated when characters start faking their own deaths.
The film rapidly earned the title of being the highest-grossing domestically-made film in Chinese history, with a gross of 730 million yuan (111.1 million in US dollars), and the second highest-grossing film in all of Chinese history, second only to James Cameron’s “Avatar.” But its humor seems both confusing and coarse. The climactic set pieces, designed to amuse and thrill at the same time, focus heavily on the suffering of the few, to the delight of the many.
Another problem lies in the use of six separate screenwriters. The action, however wild and comically-rendered, lacks focus, and the motivations of the central characters remain obscure underneath all the role playing. By the time we’ve figured out who everybody really is and what everybody really wants, we’re too busy checking our watches to care.
Chow Yun-Fat earned his international reputation playing heroes, villains, and many conflicted characters with a mix of both good and bad in their makeup. Here, he mostly gets to cackle, a lot.
His laugh rings loud and rich throughout. But it can’t compensate for the lack of sense elsewhere.
Also worth watching is You Ge, who bounces from criminal fraud, to counseling, to scheming for his own gain, sometimes all in the same scene. While not nearly as well-known internationally as Chow Yun-Fat, he proves an able and affable bulgy-eyed comedian.
The action sequences, choreographed by Chung Chi Li and Ailen Sit, do amuse, when they finally play out after reels and reels of interminable talking. Fei Zhao’s cinematography constructs scintillating layers of yellows, greens, grays, and whites, a breathtaking vision of early 20th-century China.
In the end, though, there’s simply nowhere to go and nothing noteworthy to do in this wonderful landscape. Director Jiang spends so much time on needless hysterics, and so much more time on incomprehensible games, that nothing the characters say or do sticks. I wish Jiang a fruitful career, concentrating on fewer screen personas, and four or five fewer screenwriters. (end)
“Let the Bullets Fly” opens Friday, March 9, at the SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N. in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood. For prices and show times, call 206-324-9996 or visit www.siffcinema.org.