Four years ago – when Jiang Wen unveiled Let the Bullets Fly – he said it would be different from his previous art house offerings. “I will make a film that everybody understands,” he promised.
Even though it was wildly popular in the domestic market – it made Rmb700 million ($114 million) – audiences outside China didn’t find Let the Bullets Fly quite so easy to comprehend. The New York Times reckoned the film was “at least 30 minutes and several scams too long” and that the plot “passes from amusing to confounding long before the final double-cross”.
But Jiang believes that the sequel – called Gone With the Bullets – will resonate with Western audiences. In fact, he is so confident that he says it should represent China at the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
“The China Film Bureau will decide and recommend which film will be submitted to the Academy Awards committee. But I’ll make the decision for them: I recommend myself. Otherwise, who can represent China there?” he told reporters.
The film, which like its predecessor will be released in the busy December window, certainly has the makings of a huge spectacle. Gone With the Bullets reportedly cost $50 million to make, a hugely generous budget by Chinese standards. A Broadway choreographer and American dancers were brought in, while Keith Collea, an American 3D expert, was hired for his special effects knowledge.
The film’s producers are brimming with confidence. Zhang Hua from Omnijoi Media thinks the Chinese audience is about to “witness a historical moment in Chinese film history” and that Jiang “will test how deep the waters of the China film market are and how big the potential can be”. An executive from Wanda Pictures, another of the film’s producers, was also bullish. Wanda’s greatest fear? A shortage of tickets because the film is going to be “too popular”.
Gone With the Bullets, which is based on true events, tells the story of Ma Zouri (played by Jiang) and Xiang Feitian (Ge You, who also starred in the prequel) and their efforts to stage a beauty pageant (with actress Shu Qi playing one of the contestants). It is set against the romantic and edgy background of 1920s Shanghai, although Jiang says it isn’t a full follow-up to Let the Bullets Fly. “If I tell you the new film is not a sequel to the previous one, you may call me a liar after watching it. They both have Ge You and I. They both have guns. And they both have trains. When I started filming I didn’t think about it like a sequel but when we wrapped, I also thought that there are some elements that would make this appear like a sequel,” he told Modern Life Daily.
The actor-director graduated in 1984 from Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama, China’s most prestigious acting school. He made a name for himself overseas with his performance in Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum before directing his first film, In the Heat of the Sun, a coming-of-age tale, in 1984 (see WiC57).
Jiang is notoriously picky with his work, starring in about one film a year and directing only five in more than two decades (Gone With the Bullets took four years to complete).
Feng Xiaogang, often known as China’s most commercially successful filmmaker, admits that Jiang takes his craft very seriously. “For Jiang Wen, a movie is a very sacred thing. But it is also something that makes him very stressed. He believes filmmaking should only be left for those who truly love films. This kind of love is very simple, it’s unconditional and cannot be contaminated,” he wrote in his autobiography. But perhaps Jiang is ready to take a more commercial attitude to life. Before the film’s release, he is launching a reality TV show on Beijing Satellite TV. Called Dreamer, it features Jiang helping aspiring actors to realise their career dreams. The reality series will premiere in December too. “The release of Gone with the Bullets and Dreamer is definitely related,” he admits.
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