Band of Bandits
With the current election fever brewing in Singapore, one can't help but to view this through a tinted prism and taken note of the surreal, and perhaps coincidental parallels in this Jiang Wen film about the relentless grab for power and money amongst officials and wannabes, of that fight for moral justice against another hell bent on consolidating ill gotten gains and fending off new entrants to the turf. Jiang Wen doesn't make as many films as he stars in, but here's a Chinese filmmaker with an interesting vision, almost always successfully blending stylish arthouse sensibilities and visuals with mass entertainment, bearing the biggest names and featuring the hallmarks of a rich Mandarin language.
The incredibly strong story centers around three major characters set in the warring 1920s in China, with Ge You playing Bangde Ma, a man who had unscrupulously bought his position of governorship and is on his way to claim it, having done his sums and understanding the material wealth that comes with holding that position through partnering the rich and the exploitation of the weak. However the train he's travelling in with his wife (Carina Lau) gets hijacked by infamous bandit Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen) and his band of loyal merry men, who decide to take on Bangde's identity as the incoming Governor of Goose Town, while keeping the real Bangde Ma by their side as a councillor for his political savvy. But standing in their way is the local godfather and real seat of power Wang (Chow Yun-Fat) and his gang, which obviously sets a showdown between the two camps.
And I'm not kidding you when I say there are parallels drawn here with our sunny little island, since the introductory shot of Goose Town made it seem like an island that Bangde Ma and Pocky Zhang had to cross into, before confronted with by a wily, scheming political incumbent determined to hold onto his turf and not yield it without a fight. Like politicians, they plot and counterplot against each other's schemes, with deep mistrust all round even when smiling at each other during a round table discussion. Those amongst the elites horde most of the wealth of the town, and it is not until Pocky Zhang had a change in heart and strategy of wealth distribution and moral justice did he find it within himself and his lean, mean team to inch toward power in his fight for the little man. Though of course it's pretty clear still who's being manipulated for someone's objective.
As a film, Let the Bullets Fly is sheer spectacle for its action sequences, lush cinematography, and comically awkward CG at times, with some scenes being deliberately and extremely over the top. But that's part of the fun, as the narrative is kept tight with nary a wasted scene, and what would be one of the best parts of the film is the rapid fire dialogue exchange between characters. Black humour is rampant as well to make this very close to a laugh a minute affair through its wickedness, though I have to admit at times things do get lost in translation, especially when required to read between the lines of what's said when the characters try to outdo one another, or in attempts to understand their opponents, through many twists and turns.
Stellar performances from the leads make this a must watch as well. Jiang Wen has this air of gravitas associated with his presence, and he makes for a believable bandit who found the moral courage to turn his life, and that of his followers, around to fight the good fight against Chow's Wang. Chow Yun Fat redeems himself from his really cringeworthy foray into Hollywood with dubious roles in films like Dragonball Evolution, and his performance here in dual roles as Wang and his body double, reminds us why Chow is top of the class when he gets his act together in the right charismatic role. Ge You himself is no pushover, although his character gets the least screen time. Still, when all three share the same frame or scene, the mood is nothing short of electrifying, as they banter and feed off one another's energy.
And Jiang Wen also assembled a credible ensemble support group with the likes of Carina Lau, Hu Jun in yet another cameo as a make pretend Pocky Zhang, Chen Kun as a cocky young upstart in Wang's camp, and even Feng Xiaogang making a cameo in the beginning of the film trying to suck up to Bangde Ma. You can label it a satire, or an action comedy, but one thing's for sure, this Chinese film showcases just what their industry is capable off in pulling something quirky, offbeat and yet entertaining for the masses. Jiang Wen continues to expand his filmography in a slow but assured pace, and hopefully we can get to see another one of his films soon. Highly recommended as one of the best this year, and I'm really tempted to get the DVD in order to watch this battle of wits all over again.