Tribeca 2011: A Chinese blockbuster gets its American moment
The Chinese director Jiang Wen flashes a playful grin before saying, via an interpreter, that in the movie the audience has just seen, "there is no symbolism. A train is just a train and a hot pot is just a hot pot."
The film he's referring to is "Let the Bullets Fly," a 1919-set Chinese-language western starring Chow Yun Fat, Ge You and the director, and it mixes blood and dark comedy with Tarantino-esque abandon. Jiang hardly means what he says: his film is laden with symbolism and political allegory.
Its plot, involving warlords, shooting, provincial governors, shooting, body doubles, shooting, bandits, shooting, townspeople and shooting, isn't always easy to follow -- nominally it's about a bloody cat-and-mouse game between an outlaw named Zhang and a mobster named Huang, but that's just one of its twisty plotlines --and sometimes, even, beside the point amid the rapid-fire (in more ways than one) set pieces.
Thematically, Jiang, who based his movie on a story by the Sichuanese writer Ma Shitu, is concerned with corruption in all its forms. No one is clean in "Bullets," and codes of honor can morph into codes of greed. (Jiang is a director-actor who's had movies such as "The Sun Also Rises" play the Venice Film Festival; this is a less arthouse-y offering.)
On Sunday evening at Tribeca, "Bullets" had what festival organizers described as its first public screening outside a Chinese-speaking region, after this winter becoming the biggest Chinese-made box-office hit in the history of the country. Theories abound as to the reason for that success; one explanation has it that Chinese filmgoers returned to theaters again and again to parse the movie's political meaning, the way teenagers around the world went back again and again to parse the expressions on Leonardo DiCaprio's face in "Titanic."
Audiences in this country were more divided on "Bullets." At least a few people on Sunday were spotted walking out of the theater, but several of those who stayed welcomed the director to the stage with a standing ovation. Judging by the questioners, many of the most enthused were native Mandarin speakers. (Side note: The film premiered just one day after the first ever Beijing Film Festival kicked off in China.)
A theatrical release in the U.S. could be in the offing for the movie; producers have brought on a Hong Kong-based sales company to seek a deal. But one American buyer noted that the amount of attention required to understand "Bullets" could make the picture a challenge for a broad audience (this viewer, at least, found some of the plot overwhelming and the political/historical meaning, without the proper background, elusive). The film is, essentially, a tweener: Art-house audiences could be flummoxed by its violence and shameless shocks, but the political layers (and the fact that it's not a martial-arts movie) could hurt it with the genre crowd. Sometimes a hot pot is more than a hot pot.
--Steven Zeitchik, reporting from New York
Photo: The poster for "Let the Bullets Fly." Credit: Emperor Motion Picture Group