What did you just do, Jiang Wen? The Devils on the Doorstep actor-auteur returns with Gone with the Bullets, a spiritual follow-up to his recent film Let the Bullets Fly and a curious production considering it cost 300 million RMB. This combination of meta-movie, period satire and genre pastiche is creative, admirable and largely unfathomable. This is a thoughtful and entertaining work that’s full of surprises, and should be seen as the latest in Jiang’s sterling filmography – at least, a portion of the audience will regard the film that way. “Average” or “normal” audiences, i.e., the general viewing public who made the Transformers movies so successful, will not be so happy with Gone with the Bullets, and they wouldn’t be wrong in their assessment. With its big stars, splashy visuals and opulent production, Gone with the Bullets looks exactly like the type of movie that average audiences will enjoy – and it absolutely isn’t that. That’s your warning, heed it or not.
Visually, this is terrific stuff. Gone with the Bullets is cinema to behold, with gorgeous costumes, colorful sets and a larger-than-life air. The film doesn’t present the real world – instead, it consciously depicts a heightened reality by constantly calling attention to its off-kilter characters, exaggerated situations and ironic dialogue. There’s romance, but it’s not the type that engages an audience. Characters profess to love one another, but in a broad manner that plays like cynical theater. The film transmits a constant feeling of unreality through tone, performance, art direction and camerawork. Even when danger is afoot, there’s no real tension. Characters are rarely sympathetic, with perhaps the exception of the one played by Zhou Yun (who’s Jiang Wen’s wife, hmmm). If there’s a dominant emotion here, it may be represented by the shit-eating grin plastered to Jiang Wen’s perpetually self-satisfied mug. Someone had fun making this movie.
The story of Gone with the Bullets is based on the real-life murder of a high-class prostitute in 1920s Shanghai, but quickly departs from its inspiration. The film opens with a Godfather parody featuring Wu Seven (Wen Zhang), the son of warlord General Wu (Harrison Liu). Wu Seven asks fixer Ma Tsou-Jih (Jiang Wen) to help him launder his freshly-acquired riches, so Ma and his pal, police officer Hsiang Fei-T’ian (Ge You), stage the “Flower Realm Election”, a beauty pageant that will crown Shanghai’s top courtesan (a.k.a. prostitute), with the results being broadcast worldwide. The pageant itself is an anachronistic affair (the film takes place in the 1920s, but one of the musical numbers is based on the WWII-set South Pacific) that’s notable for its glitzy, over-the-top excess. The final choice comes down to three women, one of them being Wanyan Ying (Shu Qi), who’s Ma Tsou-Jih’s longtime flame and a previous winner of the pageant. A new winner is announced, Wu Seven’s money gets laundered and the next day one of the contestants ends up dead. The apparent killer: Ma Tsou-Jih.
Ma Tsou-Jih takes flight, but is eventually captured when he disrupts a satirical play based on his supposed crime. Imprisoned, Ma is asked to participate in a film version of the play, in part directed by General Wu’s daughter Wu Six (Zhou Yun), who harbors her own feelings for Ma. This film-within-a-film is supposed to end with Ma’s actual execution, meaning that we’re watching a movie that begins with a glamorous beauty pageant and ends with the making of a snuff film. What a delightful story! Not that story means much here, because Gone with the Bullets never really attempts a coherent narrative. In some ways, the film resembles Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor, which used a high-concept premise to satirize modern China, obliquely and sometimes scathingly (co-writer Wang Shuo also wrote Personal Tailor). Gone with the Bullets is basically one long piss-take on various themes and concepts, some of them too esoteric for average audiences to care for much less understand. You can’t figure this film out from its beginning, middle or end – the devil is really in the details.
At first glance, Gone with the Bullets is a period piece about decadence and schadenfreude, but giving it only a cursory glance is taking it too lightly. A level down, the film makes fun of the vagaries and base machinations that spark history. Early on, Ma Tou-Jih tells a funny story about how he accidentally brought down the Qing Dynasty, and many conflicts can be traced back to money, women or face. China might be a target of Jiang’s barbs, but the film can also be seen as critical of any government or person that gains power and does anything to keep it. Another level down, there’s a takedown of media, and how history is written by the winners or even through (Gasp!) moviemaking. There’s scathing material here, but it’s presented through disconnected scenes rather than developed throughout the narrative – which, honestly, kind of goes nowhere. The film’s climax literally features someone tilting at a windmill. I don’t know what futile battle Jiang Wen is fighting, but for some audiences, that battle may be understanding this movie.
Not helping are non sequiturs and plot holes that are hard to overlook even considering the predominant satirical tone. In particular, Hsiang Fei-T’ian is sidelined – a disservice considering he’s played by the great Ge You. Hsiang turns up at one point imprisoned in a stable, wearing a saddle and chomping on a bit – which is explained – and then later in a field wearing a white dress – which is not explained. These details come with gags that usually elicit giggles (or perhaps puzzlement), but truly enjoying Gone with the Bullets requires the willingness to disregard coherence and laugh along with a brilliant wiseass who’s basically tearing everyone a new hole. This is bountiful meta-cinema with an extreme self-awareness and many moments that echo the filmmaking process – from the creation of a narrative to cinematic sleight of hand all the way down to the behind-the-scenes squabbling. Enjoying the film also requires the patience to parse plenty of passive-aggressive dialogue. This does not describe the Tiny Times audience.
For those who need tangible pleasures, the film offers some human moments among the thick satire. The love triangle between Ma Tsou-Jih, Wanyan Ying and Wu Six doesn’t lead to much tension, but decent emotions arise from Wu Six’s feelings for Ma Tsou-Jih, and also her relationship with her parents, General Wu and Qin Sainan (Hong Huang). Wu Six’s story includes some relatable jibes at her family, and Zhou Yun gives the film’s most human and sympathetic performance. Shu Qi is perfectly cast as the aging but still alluring courtesan, though it’s unfortunate that she had to be dubbed to remove her Taiwanese accent. Supporting turns are broad and quite amusing, while the two big male leads are eminently watchable. Gone with the Bullets may be hard to embrace, but these actors certainly aren’t; Jiang Wen and Ge You fill the screen with their strong charisma and witty exchanges, and seem to be having a ball doing, well, whatever it is that they’re doing.
Even for super Jiang Wen fanboys, Gone with the Bullets is hard to fully digest. At over two hours, it’s a long haul and the abundance of dense, ironic dialogue is not friendly. The film compensates stylistically; there’s plenty of moving camera – even during the dialogue sequences – and it’s enjoyable simply taking in the abundant sights and sounds. But in the end, appreciating the film may come down to how much one actually enjoys the art of filmmaking. Jiang Wen could have created a film with common themes, but instead he takes a real event, spins a fictional tale out of it and then uses the resulting baroque world as context to skewer anybody or anything that crosses his warped and wonderful mind. Basically, Jiang Wen is a filmmaking troll – and a damned good one. That may not be your thing and that’s OK. We can’t all like the same things and Jiang Wen just spent 300 million RMB to prove that. General audiences can have their Transformers movies – if Jiang Wen continues to make movies this witty, weird and wonderful, I’ll still show up.