By Nicholas Barham
If you are looking for a movie that perfectly blends action, intrigue and drama then let me introduce you to Let the Bullets Fly, original title: 让子弹飞 (or Ràng Zǐ Dàn Fēi in pinyin), a blockbuster action comedy written and directed by Jiang Wen.
The film is set in 1920s China and follows Pocky Zhang (played by Jiang Wen), a Robin Hood-style bandit who attempts to ambush and pilfer from governor Ma Bangde (played by Ge You). Ma Bangde is a conman who bought his way into the illustrious position of governor so that he could make a fortune from the people of Goosetown. During the bandit ambush the governor’s counsellor is killed, but the trickster governor survives by impersonating his counsellor, leading the bandits to believe that the governor died in the ambush. Bangde then convinces Zhang that he can help him impersonate the governor and thus take advantage of the position of county governor.
But upon arrival in Goosetown Zhang immediately faces opposition from the local mob boss Master Huang (played by Chow Yun Fat). What follows is an extremely convoluted plot where the two feuding parties face off in an escalating conflict that that involves body doubles, murder, double-crossing, betrayal and more. The rivalry between the two reaches increasingly violent and chaotic ends as Zhang schemes to both steal Huang’s fortune and exact revenge.
Zhang is an interesting character who led me to constantly question what degree he was villainous and to what degree he was a hero. As mentioned, Zhang is often shown as a type of Robin Hood-style bandit: At one point in the film, we see him enact a plan to kidnap Huang (who turned out to be a double), and two others, and then ransom for their release. He then has his bandits distribute the money to the poor under the cloak of night.
Zhang, and indeed even the other characters, are no cardboard cut-outs, and instead are complex characters that just feel alive. Zhang himself seems to have some deep motives for his banditry, and we do get some vague ideas of his backstory which I wish were explored more.
The film’s pacing never lets-up as every few minutes there are new twists and turns, betrayals, schemes, and evolving plot points. I found it hard to follow at times, and it is certainly not a film you can just have on in the background. Let the Bullets Fly instead requires your utmost attention if you are to have any hope of following the unfolding story, but if you can succeed in following it then you will be rewarded with a very captivating story of intrigue, revenge and rivalry.
Although the film bills itself as an action film, it has much more depth to it than that. This is not a mindless movie of constant gunfights, explosions, and feats of heroism that stretch the limits of believability. When I think “action movie”, what immediately springs to mind is films like Rambo, or Die Hard. Movies with paper-thin plots that exist solely so that the hero has an excuse to spend a vast majority of the movie gunning down villainous henchmen. But this film’s plot is not paper-thin, and the majority of the movie is not wasted on mindless scenes of violent action. Instead, much of the film is taken up by exposition and plot development; with a side of comedy which seemed somewhat alien and strange to a westerner like myself, but amusing comedy nonetheless. But when the gunfire does occasionally grace the screen, we are treated to some truly exciting action set-pieces reminiscent of classic westerns.
There seems to be an abundance of subtext hidden in the depths of this film that is difficult to account for or understand. Indeed, Jiang Wen has remains tight-lipped about the meaning or message behind the film, but many have speculated it’s a well disguised political satire. The CCP can be a bit prickly when it comes to criticisms, or anything that casts them in a bad light, so if the film is in fact a political satire, then Jiang Wen has done well to evade censorship. Whatever the case, Let the Bullets Fly is an amazing film despite its confusing convoluted plot, and if you have not yet watched it then what are you waiting for?