Friday, March 02, 2012

Let the Bullets Fly: the Legend of Pocky Zhang

Call it gangster government. During China’s lawless 1920’s, adventurers bought governorships to make a quick score bleeding the locals dry through excessive taxation. Basically, it was a lot like the Federal government’s current fiscal policy. However, one old school outlaw finds the system too corrupt to countenance in Jiang Wen’s wild Eastern Let the Bullets Fly (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Nick-named for the pockmarks he ought to have but doesn’t, “Pocky” Zhang is not exactly Robin Hood, but he has his limits. Hijacking the train carrying Goose Town’s new governor, Bangde Ma, Zhang and his six sons instead find a weasely con man looking to make a fast buck. Assuming his place as the incoming governor, Zhang and his band try to establish some legitimate law & order in town, which hardly endears him to “Master” Huang, the town’s entrenched opium lord. Thus begins a game of chess played with a rounds and rounds of bullets.

Fly gives the “new-sheriff-in-town” story several clever twists, especially with Zhang’s final stratagem to cajole the cowed populace to rise up against Huang Tea Party-style. Indeed, it is chocked full of Mexican stand-offs, impostors, and double-crosses. Granted, it is hardly unusual for Chinese action epics to incorporate high tragedy and slapstick comedy, but viewers can really feel Jiang shifting the gears here. If not a smooth ride, at least he always has his foot on the gas, delivering high energy scene after scene.

Arguably, Jiang is his own best asset, playing Zhang with world weary gravitas and super-bad charisma. Unfortunately, Chow Yun-Fat is more than a little shticky as Huang. Watching him mug and bicker with his double (also played by Chow) does not instill the sort of joyful loathing great villains inspire. In contrast, HK actress Carina Lau is a tart-tongued delight as conman Bangde Ma’s wife masquerading as “Governor” Bangde Ma’s wife.

Fly is an eccentric period production with big set pieces that fittingly appear to be on the brink of collapse. Cinematographer Fei Zhao also gives the harsh countryside and crumbling village an evocative spaghetti western look. Featuring a great anti-hero in need of a worthy villain, Fly is still a solidly entertaining action morality play. Enjoyable but not essential, it opens today in New York at the Cinema Village.