The highest-grossing movie in Chinese history, Let the Bullets Fly suggests the typical Chinese filmgoer is pretty adventurous. It’s hard to convey how outside the mainstream this wonderfully shaggy romp of a film is. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino made a two-hour movie about the Wild West that had a scene of auto-disemboweling played for laughs and yet sold more tickets than Titanic, and you might have some idea of what I’m getting at.
A blackly comic live-action cartoon, the picture documents the zany back-and-forth squabble between a gang of honorable bandits and a devious local crime lord. It’s set in the 1920s, but not the real 1920s. Rather, it’s the mythical pre-WWII period familiar to fans of Chang Cheh’s old-school actioners. It’s modern enough to have guns but sufficiently distant from our own age to allow feats of superhuman bad-assery, a sort of wuxia with gramophones.
The chaotic tale is set in motion when a group of bandits led by Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen, also the director and one of the six credited writers) derail a train in the countryside, hoping to find silver. Instead of treasure, they discover Tang (Ge You), a sly adventurer, and something of a crook himself, who was on his way to assume a governorship he bought. To save his hide, Tang pretends the governor died in the attack, passes his wife off as the governor’s widow, and claims to be a mere lowly counselor. He advises the bandits to go into Goose Town, the city he says he was headed for, and take over the governorship themselves. There, he says, they’ll grow fat off bribes with his help.
But Tang’s pushing a scheme of his own: he hopes the bandits come into conflict with the town’s de facto ruler, Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat), a crime lord who controls the local opium trade and uses his henchmen to bully the people. And sure enough, they do. The bandits, who in lieu of names all go by a letter-number combination, are thieves and killers, of course, but they’re also upright defenders of the common man, and they don’t like Huang’s ways. (“I didn’t come here to profit off the poor,” Zhang tells Tang, who asks incredulously, “Then who do you plan to profit from?”) Huang and Zhang end up fighting a low-level war of darkly comic attrition, filled with thefts, killings, disguises, and the sort of outlandish stratagems that would be at home in a Wiley E. Coyote short.
As an actor, Jiang has a likable, manly presence. As a director, he is something of a magpie, snatching bits from old Shaw Brothers movies, Spaghetti Westerns, even Patton, and throwing it all together to create something of his own. What he ends up with is episodic, wandering, and very funny, with a somewhat delightfully old-fashioned use of fast-talking repartee. One of the best bits features two bandits describing their hopes of meeting Mozart, a man they think is called “Mu Zha,” and whom they believe is still alive somewhere in the West. Plus, it does a world of good for longtime fans of Yun-Fat to see him freed from the Hollywood purgatory of Bulletproof Monk, and having a gay old time as the effeminate, preening mob boss who favors Western suits and talks of American dollars.
Be warned, though. Much of the humor is almost inhumanly dark. Zhang’s adopted son is indeed tricked into disemboweling himself over a point of honor, and later, the crime lord’s goons try to besmirch the reputation of the bandits by dressing up like them and raping a peasant in front of her husband on her kitchen table. As horrific as these scenes are, they’re mostly used as set-ups for jokes. For instance, Zhang, unsure whether his bandits were actually involved in the attack on the woman, interrogates his men, and each gives an amusing reason why he is innocent. “You know if it had been me,” one says, “it would have been the husband on that table.”
The movie’s main failing is in its pacing. Loose, random and inventive, the plot is without organic structure. Things happen and could continue to happen indefinitely. It ends not so much because the story has been told, but because the filmmakers have decided, after over two hours, you’ve probably had enough. And although it’s a great ride—let’s be honest—by that point, you’ll probably agree.