Friday, April 29, 2011

mondocurry Asian cinema corner report from The Tribeca Film Festival 3

Part 3 Let the Bullets Fly

Everything about this past Sunday’s screening of Let the Bullets Fly at the Tribeca Film Festival had a big time feel about it. Big time lines, big time press at the tent outside the theater taking photos and interviewing big time director/star Wen Jiang along with well known actress, wife, and costar Zhou Yun. The film itself, while not always as intense as I was led to believe it would be, also made a big time impact by the time it reached its conclusion.

The story takes place, not in ancient China but in a 1920s outlaw-centric desert-scape of questionable historical accuracy. With a title like ‘Let the Bullets Fly,’ one might expect a nonstop thrill ride of one shoot-out after the next. Comparisons to the action packed Korean film, “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird,” no doubt because of its similar setting, only further propagated this expectation. In fact, scenes of violence are spread out rather widely throughout the movie’s 2 plus hours, and most of the big battles are fought with wits and minds. The film is still an overall success in two ways: as an interesting allegorical tale of the sort of power struggle that takes place between established bureaucracy and organized masses, and as a powerful character study of Wen Jiang’s twist on the gangster with a heart of gold protagonist.

The film begins with the infamous outlaw Zhang disrupting the path of a train carrying a would-be mayor to his new post. Here at the film’s outset, the true nature of the movie’s title, which I shall not reveal, is cleverly shown. With some prodding from the original mayor-to-be’s companion on the train, Zhang decides to take the politician’s place and achieve wealth and power through this deceptively earned post. When Zhang descends on the town with his gang and new advisor in tow, he learns that things are run by an even bigger outlaw of sorts, the town’s conniving governor, portrayed to shifty, greedy perfection by Chow Yun Fat. In little time, a back and forth power struggle between these two forces ensues.

From this point in the film, there is no shame in feeling confused. The story does everything in its power to mix up, baffle, and mislead the audience. As the characters vie to take the upper hand physically, financially, and in terms of the public’s perception of them, there are numerous double and triple crosses where even the characters seem uncertain of whether they are telling the truth or not. Schemes are devised employing the use of doubles, making people’s identities another confusing element of the story. Members of Zhang’s gang wear simple masks that make it easy to distinguish group members from one another, but are also easily copied by the rival governor’s forces, serving to further complicate the question of who is who during the action.

In the end, the struggle stands for more than just a battle of wills. There is clearly something being said here about how control can shift from the powerful to the relatively powerless, although the director is unwilling to relate the film to any specific political or historical situations. The title of the film again comes into play in the finale, giving the sense that the entire tale was thoroughly thought out and well-constructed.

The character of Zhang, played by director Jiang in a very strong performance, is an interesting one. At first, he stands as a sort of old school outlaw come face to face with bureaucracy, and feeling frustration when unable to adapt to it. While it presents a less risky and more profitable form of criminal activity than the one he is used to, it goes against his more traditional code of honor. His story is not just about him trying to be the more honorable thief; along the way, his motivation and entire way of being comes into question. Although presented subtly, his changes along the way are significant.

The film was not a perfect hit for me. There are moments of dramatic intensity that hit hard at the beginning of the film, only to get lost along the way to a somewhat meandering middle section. Still, when all is said and done, I felt as though I had experienced a thought-provoking and skillfully executed film, with excellent work both behind and in front of the camera.

During the Q & A, Jiang represented his vision confidently and quietly. He would not commit to any specific meaning behind the film’s story, stating that it is open to the interpretation of the audience. He rejected the notion of symbolism, too, emphasizing that objects and images in the movie are what they are, and not more. He did confirm that he will soon begin work on Let the Bullets Fly 2.

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