An Eastern Western

Gunslinging movie to break box office records

An Eastern Western

Chow and Jiang are the stars of Let the Bullets Fly

One joke doing the rounds in China right now is that while the rich man can buy an Apple iPhone 4, the poor man can barely afford 4 apples.

Such social inequality is readily understood by Jiang Wen. The director’s new blockbuster Let the Bullets Fly also deals with the issue.

The period comedy, which stars Chow Yun-Fat, Jiang himself and Ge You, revolves around a bloody battle in a remote 1920s provincial town called Echeng. Jiang plays a bandit who first attempts to masquerade as the newly appointed county head, and then picks a fight with triad leader Huang Silang (Chow).

Jiang’s character is like a modern Robin Hood. He decides to take on Huang, who makes money by trafficking labour to build railways in the US, and through a virtual monopoly on the tobacco trade.

The film has won acclaim for its satirical treatment of serious issues. The Huang character is intended to poke fun at the unscrupulous behaviour of government officials, with modern day parallels with complaints about agricultural land grabs by local governments, and the behaviour of the state-controlled cigarette industry (see WiC3).

Alongside corruption, Jiang also highlights a society increasingly divided between rich and poor. “Without political corruption in the upper classes … the blatant plundering of the people by the corrupt gentry would never take place,” says Southern Daily. “Without the weakness and stupidity of the lower classes, they [the corrupt gentry] would not be able to build their fortresses founded on social injustice.”

As WiC has reported on a number of occasions, income inequality is becoming an increasingly contentious issue (see WiC61).

Jiang’s movie seems to have caught the popular mood. Since its ballistic debut on December 16, Let the Bullets Fly has raked in a total of Rmb400 million ($60 million), putting it on course to smash box office records for a domestically-made film – the current holder being Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock, which earned Rmb600 million ($90 million) last summer.

The success of the film is a welcome change for Jiang, 47. When he won an award at the Cannes Film Festival for his black comedy Devils on the Doorstep in 2000, Chinese officials tried unsuccessfully to prevent the festival from screening the movie and demanded that Jiang hand over the negatives (which were not being kept in China). Jiang was later prohibited from directing films in China for seven years.

But it seems like those days are over. Though Let the Bullets Fly also carries a political message, the censors seem more relaxed. Perhaps that’s because the film’s social criticisms tally with those voiced by the Party itself during its regular anti-corruption campaigns.

Not that the film has passed completely without criticism. CCTV news anchor Guo Zhijian wrote on his blog that he wasn’t happy with the violence or sexual innuendo in the film, thinking it a bad influence on children. He felt so “uncomfortable” that he walked out halfway through the film.

But given the success of Let the Bullets Fly at the box office, Jiang may choose to ignore the criticisms. There have been rumours that Hollywood wants to buy the remake rights for the mainland blockbuster. Ma Ke, producer of the film, told China Daily that at least three Hollywood studios had approached him.

“Some of the studios are in Hollywood’s top six,” he said in an interview. “Some even offered a price of more than $10 million.” If the deal is struck, the film will be the first mainland movie to be made into a Hollywood version.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.