Review: Let the Bullets Fly (2010)

Let the Bullets Fly accomplishes what many American satires try and fail to do, which is to satirize a target while also delivering a satisfying narrative. It's a political satire, critiquing current Chinese government practices as well as the original Maoist revolution, but it also satisfies the contours of a successful narrative divorced from its satire. As a Mainland Chinese film, writer, director and star Jiang Wen gets away with his critique by disguising it as a gangster epic about a mountain bandit pretending to be the governor of a small town ruled by a ruthless gangster.

Jiang pulls off a delicate balancing act with Let the Bullets Fly. He has never openly stated his film is a satire, but the Chinese friend who lent me the film assures me it works as an allegory for the Maoist revolution. And as the film built to its climax, it's function becomes ever more apparent. Jiang could not be upfront about the satire because the censors in China are notoriously strict and would remove any obvious criticism of the Communist Party. He had to hide his message. But even if you ignore the satire in Let the Bullets Fly, the film still works as riotous entertainment.

In some ways Let the Bullets Fly operates as an allegory, with characters or plot-turns standing in for an event or figure central to China's communist history. Its Mao figure is Pock Mark Zhang (Jiang Wen), a bandit raiding wealthy caravans in the mountainous region of northern China. The film begins with Zhang and his sons attacking a train carrying the soon-to-be governor of Goose Town, Ma Bengde (Ge You). The train crashes, killing everyone on it except for the governor and his wife. However, Zhang does not know the surviving man is the governor, so with no money to give Zhang to save his life, Ma claims to be the governor’s counselor, and convinces Zhang to pretend to be Ma and take up the position of governor in Goose Town to get his money. This is the first in a series of deceptions that drive the narrative.

Zhang agrees to Ma’s course of action and heads to Goose Town as its new governor. When he gets there, he finds Goose Town in worse shape than he expected. It’s a Wild West frontier town, run by the ruthless gangster, Master Huang (Chow Yun-fat), who remains safely holed up in his fortified citadel outside the city gates. Zhang finds a worthy adversary in Huang and swears to have his fortune from Huang and wrest the town away from his control.

This battle of wits between Zhang and Huang leads to a series of deceptions and nighttime confrontations in the town’s streets. The actors take advantage of the opportunity to play such larger-than-life figures. Yun-fat, in particular, revels in depicting Huang’s exaggerated villainy. Representing both the opulent capitalist thugs of the 1920s (the period in which the film is set in) and the current oligarchs running China, Huang is a classical satiric villain, more caricature than character. He has an exact double he sends out on business to confound his enemies. He favours three-piece white suits and spies on the citizens of Goose Town from atop his citadel. He may even literally twirl his moustache in certain scenes.

Let the Bullets Fly openly wears its western influences. It’s full of gunfights and panoramic vistas. Zhao Fei’s cinematography shoots Jiang like John Wayne: ideal, moral masculinity. But unlike most of its western influences, especially Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Jiang’s film revels in its black humour. It takes every opportunity to humorously undercut the characters’ schemes.

Midway through the film, both Zhang’s sons and Huang’s thugs hit the streets in bandit disguises. As they meet each other in the town square, a gunfight occurs, but soon both sides realize they’re all sporting identical costumes. They can’t tell each other apart. The fight stops and the characters stand around confusedly, until someone suggests they all flee in the direction they came so as to clear up the sides. The confrontation is halted by simple confusion.

This scene is indicative of how Jiang satisfies both the film’s satirical thrust and its narrative. It’s a clever set piece that thrills in its gunfight and amuses with how it’s resolved. It moves the narrative forward with both sides having to determine better plans to undo their opponents. If Zhang’s bandits represent Mao’s communists and Huang’s thugs represent the capitalist republicans, the scene also serves Jiang’s satire. It shows how the methods of the communists and the capitalists were often identical and that in the midst of their deceptions, they were indistinguishable.

Softball American satires like Kick-Ass and The Campaign will target an aspect of culture, such as superheroes or politics, and deconstruct that aspect hilariously in the first half of the film. But then the filmmakers will attempt to satisfy a story arc, have the characters mature, and ultimately celebrate what they’re supposed to be assaulting. This approach can be half-assed, showing that the filmmaker lacked the courage or know-how to bring the satire to its full potential. Their reversal ultimately deflates the satire. They can neither get past their affection for what they mock, nor wed their storytelling to their theme.

Let the Bullets Fly is that rare satire that satisfies on a pure narrative level, allowing the characters to grow and the plot to come to an appropriate conclusion, while never relenting in its satire. Even if you don't get the satirical allegory, Let the Bullets Fly satisfies as an action film and as a comedy. American satires too often want to ridicule a genre while also satisfying the requirements of that genre. The LEGO Movie, for example, criticizes commercialization while being a literal advertisement for a toy company. Because Jiang's object of satire is not action movies or westerns, but political factors external to his film, Let the Bullets Fly can deliver both whole-hearted satire and story. Although Let the Bullets Fly is dealing with satirical subterfuge, there's nothing unclear about Jiang's talent as a filmmaker. American satirists take note.

8 out of 10

Let the Bullets Fly (2010, China/Hong Kong)

Written and directed by Jiang Wen; starring Jiang Wen, Chow Yun-fat, Ge You, Carina Lau, Jiang Wu, Liao Fan, Chen Kun, Zhou Yun, and Zhang Mo.