Any movie out of China with a title like Let The Bullets Fly, and numbering among its stars that wily hambone Chow Yun-Fat, would seem to announce its intentions pretty clearly. And indeed there's considerable bulletage on display here, and plenty of action—although not such an overload of the wire-work variety that the cast spends half of the picture up in the air. (A number of luckless characters do go flying by, of course, some of them bouncing off a giant drum the size of a mill wheel. The "Drum of Justice," it's called. Don't bother asking.)
The movie is unapologetically an old-school western of the John Ford variety. The remote town in which the tale is set has a distinctively Asian architectural cast, but the dusty main street running through it lacks only hitching posts to be entirely familiar, and a requisite bordello is among the buildings fronting on it. A rowdy teahouse stands in for the customary barroom. And of course just about everyone is armed. ("So you have a gun," says one hooligan. "Who doesn't?")
So the genre trappings are strictly traditional. But what director Jiang Wen has really created here is a comedy of the most demented sort. The story is preposterously knotty, filled with double-dealings, doubled characters, murky disputes over bowls of jelly, and bloody disembowelings played for laughs. You can almost hear how the writers (Jiang among them) must have chortled as they slapped this thing together.
Chow Yun-Fat plays…no, wait, let's back up. The movie, set in Southern China in 1920, begins with a strange little two-carriage train being pulled along it tracks by a team of white horses. Inside are a con man named Tang (fidgety Ge You) and his devious mistress (Carina Lau). Tang has brazenly purchased the governorship of Goose Town, to which he is currently en route. But then a gang of bandits—on black horses, naturally—attacks the train and manages to derail it with an entirely silly maneuver involving a pair of hatchets. Prying Tang's scheme out of the terrified little weasel, the gang's leader, "Pocky" Zhang (director Jiang again), decides to take over Tang's identity and become the governor himself—and then set about extracting riches from the local fat cats and distributing them among the poor. He takes Tang along with him as his "counselor."
Upon arriving in Goose Town, Pocky and company discover that it's already firmly under the thumb of a slick opium-runner named Master Huang (Chow), whose own inclinations are to extract endless taxes from the poor and distribute them among the fat cats. Although not for much longer, maybe: "I shall pull Huang up by the roots!" Pocky vows.
Headlong confusion sets in almost immediately. Pocky's seven-man gang and Huang's various lackeys are difficult enough to keep track of; but Huang also employs a body double, and there's a second Pocky in the offing as well, not to mention somebody's spare wife. A number of these people are rather eccentrically attired: there are various neo-Edwardian three-piece suits and fedoras and straw boaters on display, along with such what-the-hell anachronisms as stylish round-lens sunglasses and—on one of the local whores—a vibrant blue-rinse dye job. Much fun is had with this sort of thing, and it's hard to resist.
Very soon into the picture, you begin to notice that, amid all the swarming uproar, the script actually is very funny, and filled with rich lines. ("My reputation is a hollow shell," says Master Huang, with silky insincerity.) Also that director Jiang is also an effortlessly charismatic actor (occasionally suggesting, in his warm, contemplative stillness, a young Max von Sydow). And the film is mightily elevated by its epical widescreen cinematography, which is purely gorgeous. (The picture was shot by Zhao Fei, who has also worked with Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Woody Allen.)
Let the Bullets Fly is said to be the highest-grossing Chinese film on record, and it has clearly been designed as a crowd-pleaser. I can't imagine anyone being able to make sense of all of it, but I can't imagine anyone not being charmed by it, either. It's a great-looking picture, smart and witty and very knowing about the genre on which it's riffing. And Lord knows, it's never dull, in any language.