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The Hopeless Bullet: On Let the Bullets Fly

2019.03.20 10:01
关键词:Jiang Wen the masses the revolutionary
In this sense, Let the Bullets Fly is indeed an important film .Its depiction of revolution and the response this depiction has elicited in its audience perfectly captures the basic mood of our era: Despite all manner of oppression and discontent, people still hold back, unwilling to reimagine or understand themselves.

The Hopeless Bullet: On Let the Bullets Fly[1]

by LUO Xiaoming 

Shanghai University

Front. Lit. Stud. China 2013, 7(3): 511–524, DOI 10.3868/s010-002-013-0030-2

In December 2010, Jiang Wen released his first New Year’s celebration film: Let the Bullets Fly. The film is an adaptation of Dao Guan Ji, a chapter from Ma Shitu’s novel Ye Tan Shiji. The story takes place in the Northern Warlord era, where a con man called Lao Tang has purchased a governorship. On his way to take up his new post, he happens to encounter Zhang Mazi (JiangWen), the ringleader of a Robin Hood-style robbery. Together, the two head to Goose Town to claim the governorship. Lao Tang intends to earn back the sum he paid for the title, and perhaps make a quick buck on the side; Zhang, meanwhile, has dreams of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. As always, Goose Town’s local mobster—Huang Silang—has set a trap for the new governor, asking him to rid the people of a great evil. Consequently, Zhang’s first piece of official business as governor is to capture the local bandit leader, “Zhang Mazi.” Zhang soon discovers this other Zhang Mazi is a “terrorist” hired by Huang. Thanks to this “Zhang Mazi,” Huang had been able to collect protection money from the local merchants and townspeople. He was also able to justify suppressing any officials sent to Goose Town who might represent a threat to him, thereby maintaining his own iron grip on power. Zhang resolves to get rid of Huang once and for all. First, he appeals to the common folk, urging them to rally together to defeat the tyrant, but receives no response, as nobody truly believes Huang can be overthrown. Finally, Zhang captures Huang’s look-alike, decapitating him and putting him on public display. The people of Goose Town believe Huang has been defeated and rush to divide up the loot. Huang realizes that he is being mistaken for his own look-alike, taking all the abuse being hurled at the “real” Huang. After elegantly defeating Huang, Zhang’s troops disband. A few youths leave for Shanghai, carrying some new baubles looted from Huang’s residence. Riding his horse, Zhang watches them as they go.

Early publicity touted Let the Bullets Fly as a “fantasy comedy western.” However, elements such as corruption, crime lords, buying and selling of titles, and stealing from the rich to give to the poor are clearly more in keeping with viewing habits that “use the past to satirize the present,” as well as touching a nerve with many contemporary Chinese. When it comes to destroying evil, Jiang Wen does not skimp on the bullets, and the results are equally impressive. After five days, Let the Bullets Flyhad broken 200 million yuan at the box office. After years of being let down by Feng Xiaogang-style New Year’s celebration films, people were finally looking forward to some real excitement. For a time, people all over the internet were trying to decipher the various clues hidden throughout the film. For example, the sophisticated hand grenades Huang Silang collects are a symbol of his role as local warlord, but also suggest that he was an active participant in the 1911 Revolution. Moreover, the scene in which the youths are shown sitting on the train to Pudong is an echo of the scene in which Lao Tang first arrives in Goose Town. It is hard to imagine that these examples are not present to satirize the connection between past revolutionaries and today’s degenerate political elements. Moreover, this kind of sleuthing clearly has a dual reality effect—on the one hand, it allows Jiang Wen to “make money while standing” without appearing vulgar, relying only on a good story to do well at the box office; on the other hand, it seems as if he is fulfilling the promise made in another classic line from the movie. People have suggested that this intensely political film itself represents a kind of “let the bullets fly for a little while”[2] game that Jiang Wen is playing with the Huang Silangs of today’s China.

For a time, Jiang Wen and Zhang Mazi were confused with one another, their form and meaning overlapping in people’s conversations. Jiang was Zhang, and Zhang was Jiang. Who is Zhang Mazi? He is a revolutionary who followed the famous general Cai E in his youth. He is unwilling to kneel to make money, or even to make other people kneel. He wants to be God; he wants to take care of Huang Silang. He tells us a world without Huang is very important to us. And who is Jiang Wen? He tries to show people how to make money while standing; he makes a political film in an era full of big flops; he has attempted once more to tell a story about revolution in today’s “Shanghai is Pudong, Pudong is Shanghai”[3] world. He deals imaginatively with “Huang Silang” for us, and swiftly immerses us in the sober awakening of the “day after revolution.”[4]

The strong likeness between Jiang Wen and Zhang Mazi is both a product of Jiang’s dreams and everyone else’s desires. After all, the present era is so lacking in heroes that anyone who appears to be a hero will receive the people’s unequivocally passionate support; there are even those who vehemently assert that Zhang points one gun at himself and the other at Hua Jie[5] because “of course, the purest revolutionary is one who will, holding the most perfect ideals in his heart, point one gun at his enemy and the other at himself.” However, it is also here that the differences between revolutionary and false revolutionary, as well as between hero and false hero, are made clear. After all, the test of a revolutionary’s relative pureness has never been whether or not he can strike a pose; rather, it lies in his opinions of the ruling class and of the masses, and in his own connection to the world.

It is not in the least surprising that Jiang Wen’s opinions regarding the masses, the ruling class, and even the world, are extraordinarily similar to those of Zhang Mazi.

Who is the ruler of Goose Town? Huang Silang. The film’s portrayal of such a figure could easily have been censored; in fact, we were all pleasantly surprised. Huang does not tolerate any power who would oppose him. Neither has he succeeded in wooing the political minds of Goose Town’s two largest clans; all he can think about is how to extract more money from them, in order to concentrate the economic and political power of Goose Town entirely in his own hands. During the confrontation with Zhang Mazi, Huang’s anger is a spent force, expressed in impotent questions such as “They dare kill my horse?!” But in the end, he finally realizes that he has an even greater weakness: his look-alike. A ruler lacking in political wisdom, with an economic instinct that puts the cart before the horse—how similar this is to today’s situation! If we consider this point alone, Jiang Wen’s understanding of the ruling class is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the use of a look-alike. After all, every ruling class in every era has needed stand-ins to take the people’s abuse, as well as, potentially, their vengeance. To a certain extent, the significance of the revolutionary lies in pointing out that the risk of using a look-alike is precisely this look-alike’s “decapitation,” signifying the real body’s annihilation. The cycle of “pretending to be real when the real is also pretend” between Huang Silang and his look-alike also closely resembles a Zhang Mazi-style revolutionary’s clever warning to the Huang Silangs of today, as well as to his ideological substitutes.

However, after all is said and done, what do the deaths of Huang Silang and his substitute mean to the overwhelming majority of people in Goose Town? It is not easy to consider this point while watching the film. The shots in which they appear show only an endless succession of backs, as they pick up their share of the loot and scuttle away. And although there has never been a solitary revolutionary—when a revolutionary emerges, a new relationship is always born between that revolutionary and the masses in society—as soon as the confrontation between Huang Silang and Zhang Mazi begins, Let the Bullets Fly regards this “overwhelming majority” with utter contempt. Who are the masses? They are the people who still kneel after Zhang Mazi has already rebuked them. Who are the masses? They are the people who, after receiving unexpected and unnecessary charity, repay it with nothing but laughter. Who are the masses? In Zhang Mazi and Huang Silang’s eyes, they are the silently resentful “traitors” who size up the situation to see who is winning before they choose who to follow. Who are the masses? They are the people who, after the rebel victory, reap where they have not sown; the people who unabashedly say, “Magistrate, please return this chair to me.” And it is from this overwhelming majority that civil servants are born. The images of “Master Wu” and his ilk working together for revolution are also extremely familiar to us. Here, the masses are seen as a kind of blind and terrible power, possessing the brute force to trample anything in their path, but deprived of any chance at consciousness. Their fate is to be forever pressured or led by intelligent people, assigned to their share of intelligent people’s ambitions or dreams.

The “day after the revolution” will undoubtedly arrive in similar contempt. Past revolutionaries will sit once more on the train, eating hotpot and singing songs as they speed towards Shanghai. Perhaps in some sense, the “day after the revolution” cannot reach out and touch people’s emotions until there is a contempt and mistrust for the overwhelming majority. The sad thing is, these emotions are powerless to solve real problems. And the plight we find ourselves in today has not resembled the “day after the revolution” for quite some time; we are now closer to the “nth day.” I am afraid that on the nth “day after the revolution,” the only way to restart a revolution will be to reimagine and relocate the position of the masses in society.

In this sense, Let the Bullets Fly is indeed an important film. Its depiction of revolution and the response this depiction has elicited in its audience perfectly captures the basic mood of our era: Despite all manner of oppression and discontent, people still hold back, unwilling to reimagine or understand themselves. To a large extent, the reason Zhang Mazi becomes a hero, or at least esteemed as a “revolutionary,” is simply that he frankly confirms everyone’s judgment of the ruling class, as well as unhesitatingly confirming everyone’s opinion of the “overwhelming majority.” Consequently, everyone in this society is willing to become a Zhang Mazi, and through imagining other people as a faceless majority and imagining history as revolutionary and reactionary cycle, to each confirm themselves as the only waking hero.

And when angry youths and seemingly left-leaning intellectuals fervently praise this film, we face even grimmer circumstances. On the one hand, we have a shortage of heroes; on the other hand, the standard of heroes is rapidly falling. On the one hand, revolution is being passionately rekindled; on the other hand, the ability to understand revolution is atrophying. When Jiang Wen’s narcissistic heroism wakens people to the boundless pleasure of revolution, it ends in nothing but a feast for cynics. Revolution becomes a violent exercise in changing the current situation, an exercise completely lacking in ideals; similarly, our revolutionary imagination becomes a life hiding in cities, a digestive exercise that gives vent to real emotions without changing any of our self-perceptions.

In the end, what Jiang Wen is ultimately firing at us is nothing more than a colorful piece of candy. Before being made to think about it in any practical sense, we have already experienced the sweetness and helplessness of rebellion. In the end, the film never succeeds in opening a gap between today’s universal cynicism and our visions of revolutionary poses, a gap through which bullets could really fly for a little while.


[1] Translated by Sarah Stanton.

[2] On more than one occasion in the film, Zhang Mazi fires a shot, but the target is unharmed. Someone anxiously asks, “You didn’t hit him?” With the air of a man with a card up his sleeve, Zhang replies, “Let the bullets fly for a little while.” His target soon falls dead.

[3] Here, “Pudong and Shanghai” is a metaphor, symbolizing the urbanization-led economic development which dominates today’s China.

[4] Since the 1980s, the “day after revolution” is a topic frequently discussed in contemporary Chinese literary research. This discussion points out that the criterion for victory in a revolution is not the seizure of political power, but whether or not the revolutionaries, after seizing power, are able to handle any issues that arise in social organization, everyday life, self-metamorphosis, and so on.

[5] Hua Jie, one of the few female characters in the film, is initially Huang Silang’s subordinate. After she is saved by Zhang Mazi, she joins his side.