Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Let the Bullets Fly (B+)

Combining various elements from martial arts flicks, old fashioned period pieces, modern blockbusters, spaghetti westerns, Cohen Brother dark comedies, and even 1930's Marx Brother slapstick comedies, Wen Jiang (writer, director and lead actor) has concocted an epic genre mishmash that, against all possible odds, manages to juggle its multiple homages with ease, and despite some jarring tonal shifts, largely flies high in terms of success as an overall film. Set in 1920's China, a group of nine bandits led by a charismatic leader who may be the elusive and cunning outlaw "Pocky Zhang", attempt to scam the peaceful Goose Town out of riches by masquerading as government officials and plundering the tax money. However, after offending the richest man in the village, the sinister Master Huang (Yun-Fat Chow), one of their own is killed by Huang's minions, and vengeance must be dealt as result.

Running a surprisingly long 132 minutes, after a train plundering/assassination prologue seemingly copied directly from another interesting asian genre-mashup; The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, the film gains a general fast pace, which it keeps for the great majority of the time. Once the rivalry between the outlaws and Master Huang is established, the film largely becomes a variety of schemes by one party to destroy the other to varying degrees of success. Using extensive runtime to his advantage, Jiang is able to examine this physical and psychological warfare in a comedic and dramatic light, and more than often mixes the two polars together for scenes that simultaneously convey humanistic emotion, and force the audience to become squeamishly uncomfortable as to the hilarity taking place in the seemingly brutal moment. An example of this compelling, yet slightly off putting mixture of comedy and drama can be found in the character of Huang's hired impersonator (Wu Jiang). Early in the film, this character is captured by the bandits as a hostage, but he never stops his dead-on impersonation of his employer, even when his life is on the line during what could easily be considered a torture sequence. It's an absurd scene, but it's also grim as well: We, as an audience, are essentially laughing at the misery of a relatively innocent man. Pulling off a sequence such as this gives extreme credit to the actor, Wu Jiang, and the director.

When blending together so many separate genres at one time, problems regarding tonal shifts would seem to almost be a mandatory dilemma, but one that still must be dealt with. Far too frequently, Wen Jiang shifts the tone to fit whatever situation is taking place; which means every three or so scenes, a jarring change occurs. It almost comes off that Jiang is not creating one whole movie, but rather multiple shorter scenes from separate movies, with each film focused on one genre rather than many. While combining both dramatic and comedic situations can operate successfully because of the acting and direction, no matter the context, frequent drastic alterations in tone cannot, or at least in the great majority of the time, succeed.

Despite problems in terms of changing tone, Jiang's ambitious genre mashup still largely works due to its fine performances, and Jiang's abilities as a director. It's impossible to describe as one individual niche of cinema, which proves how well the film excels at balancing its multiple genres at once. I'd recommend the film as a dark comedy, a foreign blockbuster, or a insightful western with a strong scenery change, but since it doesn't fit the mold to any of these, I'll just have to recommend the film in general. This is a cinematic experience that couldn't be declared perfect, but is certainly unlike anything you'll see this year. A true hidden gem.

Grade: B+

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