Gone With The Bullets (Yi bu zhi yao)
China (2014) Dir. Jiang Wen
Serving as a spiritual successor to 2010’s Let The Bullet’s Fly, Jing Wen’s 300 million RMB production was presumably designed to be extraordinarily lavish to distract us from the confusing storyline. Therefore please bear with me if the plot summary is a little glib as Jiang overloads this film with way too much surreal frippery.
What is indisputable is that the setting is 1920’s Shanghai and after a rambling Godfather pastiche, wealthy playboy Wu Qi (Wen Zhang) asks Manchurian aristocrats Ma Zouri (Jiang) and Xiang Feitian (Ge You) to launder his father’s wealth for him. To rid themselves of this tainted money they decide to hold and international beauty pageant with the contestants comprised of prostitutes.
To the surprise of many (but not the organisers) the winner is Wanyan Ying (Shu Qi), a Mongolian princess and two-time former winner, vowing to sell herself for charity if victorious. Wanyan is also Ma’s lover and one night she forcedly proposes to him and in celebration, they smoke some opium and go for a drive. The next morning Ma wakes up to fins Wanyan dead and is the prime suspect of her assumed murder.
Gripping stuff so far, correct? Well, it would be if Jiang and his NINE writers showed any care for the story. It is there are pops up every now and then but only after Jiang has padded out for the first hour with baffling non-sequiturs and visually gregarious antics to justify the 3D presentation (which was corrupted on first release and had to be abandoned for a rushed 2D print instead).
Beneath the gorgeous imagery and arcane flights of fancy however, it appears Jiang is in full satirical mode but what it is he is satirising is open to interpretation. It might be the opulence of cinema and the folly of giving directors obscene amounts of money to work with (job certainly done there); or perhaps it is an allegory to show that hyping the budget as a marketing ploy is a cynical exploitation of the audiences who will pay to see something pretty that is in fact, soulless tosh.
The scenes of the actually pageant are sumptuous visual feasts and epic in scale, boasting a huge chorus line of high kicking female dancers, a huge gilded stage and a tightly choreographed musical number performed before a capacity crowd. Prior to this, a superbly edited info-dump incorporating genuine newsreel footage gives a further idea of the creative trip Jiang is on here.
Most remarkably of all is the fact that Gone With The Bullets is based on a true story of the murder of a 1920’s courtesan which formed the basis of China’s first ever film, which is weaved into the story through Wu Liu (Jiang’s wife Zhou Yun), Wu Qi’s aspiring filmmaker sister. She captures the pageant on film but following Wanyan’s death decides to turn it into a drama, although she is missing a suitable ending.
Having been in hiding for two years after Wanyan’s passing, Ma resurfaces when he attacks an actor performing a one-man satirical play based on the alleged murder. Arrested by Xiang Feitian – now a high ranking police official, complete with a Hitler moustache to reflect his staunch new attitude – Ma is offered his release if he stars as himself in Wu Liu’s film, except Xiang is planning to execute Ma on film.
Going meta with this angle is one thing but turning it into a snuff movie is another, but since Jiang is unconcerned about things like congruent pay offs, suffice to say this is one avenue he chooses not to explore and instead sends the story spiralling off into other territories – all equally off kilter and esoteric of course.
There is too much happening to discuss without spoiling it, but then again the incoherent narrative is so dense there is a very good chance I missed something – in fact, I asked myself that question on numerous occasions. On the infrequent occasions Jiang sticks to the plot there is an engaging story being told, with nice twists and the odd admirable moral message being imparted along with the delicious satire, but the distractions and obfuscations do more harm than good.
Perhaps my intellect is way below Jiang’s or China’s idea of satire is on a different plane to those of us in the west, but this is a film that has proven to be quite a struggle to follow on both sides of the world, with many native viewers not sure what they watched here. It’s a shame really as the humour is quite sharp when it hits but the 2-hour run time isn’t used satisfactorily for such a bare husk of a story.
I can’t imagine how this looked on paper and if the rest of the cast understood what Jang was going for but everyone gives it there all. Jiang himself as Ma, appears to be having fun (and with 300 million to play with, of course he is) and his innate charisma (which won him new fans on the international front with his fun turn as Baze Malbus in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One) helps alleviate the inconsistency of the narrative.
Mrs. Jiang aka Zhou Yun plays it rather straight as Wu Liu, providing a much needed grounded presence. Shu Qi is perfectly cast as the mercurial Wanyan (although her dialogue was dubbed because of her Taiwanese accent) while Ge You is used sparingly but as always enriches every scene with his incredible screen presence. The big budget was put to full use with nearly 30,000 costumes used and the lovingly replicated sets of 1920’s Shanghai, despite the story not occurring in any relatable universe to ours.
Gone With The Bullets will either be viewed as too smart for its own good or a work of indulgent genius. More power to anyone who can follow Jiang’s vision, everyone else can enjoy this as a bewildering visual spectacle.