Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Let the Bullets Fly

The circle may have finally closed on Tarantino-ization with this Chinese film, which seems to borrow as generously from QT as he borrowed from Hong Kong masters.

A gorgeously filmed chow fun western set about 100 years ago in southern China, in “the age of warlords,” as the opening titles put it, Let the Bullets Fly keeps tossing us curve balls, from its comic train robbery opening to its wry coda of an ending.

Cowriter/director Wen Jiang plays Pocky Zhang, the bandit who decides to pass as a governor after robbing the train, which turns out to contain no loot, just a terrified con man (Xiaogang Feng) who got rich by posing as a governor. He leads Zhang to Goose Town, a roiling pit of corruption ruled by Huang (Chow Yun Fat), a real governor and the worst thief of them all. Chow also plays his character’s hapless body double, a goofball Huang hires to bamboozle his enemies. And that’s just the first five minutes or so.

There’s a Tarantino feel to those quirky outlaws and to the stylishly filmed, sometimes comically over-the-top fight scenes, not to mention the meandering talk that is the real heart of the film, sprinkling nuggets of sly social commentary amid the cascading ribbons of misdirection and intrigue. The way Zhang’s band of bandits identify each other by numbers instead of names is reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. White and colleagues, too.

But the tone of Let the Bullets Fly is all its own, an endearing mix of balls-to-the-wall action and world-weary bemusement that keeps things light even as heads explode. Nothing can be taken at face value, and characters switch identities and allegiances as easily as most of us change clothes. The vividly funny Carina Lau plays a self-interested woman who swaps spouses without missing a beat as the men around her change positions. “What I want is to be a governor’s wife,” she tells Zhang as she wraps her legs around him. “Who the governor is, is of no consequence to me!”

I wonder if it’s that insouciant cynicism that made this the highest-grossing film in hang-tough, change-a-minute China.

Written for The L Magazine

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