Friday, February 4, 2011

Hit Chinese film a sharp-edged satire By Robert Hartmann

HONG KONG - A new Chinese film, Let The Bullets Fly, screened across China last month, has been an unexpected success, reaping staggering box-office revenue. The Western-style action black comedy has become a phenomenon by using the past to sharply satirize the present rampant corruption and social injustice.

Intriguingly, the debut of Let The Bullets Fly coincided with the revelation by WikiLeaks of criticisms of Chinese films by Vice President Xi Jinping, heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao.

According to a secret US diplomatic memo (created on March 19, 2007 by the US Embassy in Beijing), as revealed by WikiLeaks, Xi (then party chief of Zhenjiang province) told the American

ambassador that he "particularly likes Hollywood movies about World War II. Hollywood makes those movies well, and such Hollywood movies are grand and truthful. Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil."

In contrast, Xi said "Some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote." He criticized Zhang Yimou by name as well as the kung fu action-movie genre. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon andWu Jig and imperial palace intrigues " are all the same, talking about bad things in imperial palaces. To some extent it can be said that such movies are not worth very much".

Perhaps like Xi, many Chinese movie-viewers are fed up with movies featuring the court coups and intrigues of the Ming and Song Dynasties, and find Let The Bullets Fly fresh, as well as rich in metaphors and satire with political and social implications. As a result, the movie flies like a bullet, striking a sympathetic chord among the public, as an online comment has put it.

Set in the chaotic warlord period in the 1920s in China, the Western-style black comedy is about the deadly battle of wit and brutality between bandit chief Zhang, who hijacks the identity of the newly installed mayor of Goose city, and local mobster Huang, who has made an enormous fortune by colluding with local officials.

The movie opens when new mayor Ma and his private advisor Tang are on their way to take office in Goose city, and are robbed by Zhang and his gang. Tang dies in the raid and a petrified Ma steals Tang's identity to avoid being killed and gives the mayor’s post to Zhang. Zhang asks for money. Then Ma tells Zhang that the post is bought, and that the mayor’s job is worth a fortune.

This scam is a familiar one nowadays in China. It is no longer a "state secret" that a number of officials have bought their posts with bribes. A notorious example is Xu Zongheng, the mayor of Shenzhen between 2005 and 2009. He has been charged with buying his position and taking bribes adding up to 2 billion yuan (US$300 million). Earlier reports said he faced the death penalty as part of the central government’s campaign to crack down on rampant corruption.

Another notorious official is the former party chief of Suihua city in the northeast Heilongjiang province. Between 1992 and 2002, he pocketed over 6 million yuan by trading hundreds of municipal posts.

Debuting on December 16, the box office take for the 132-minute Let The Bullets Fly reached 600 million yuan as of last week. It has been praised as the most Geili (an Internet buzzword meaning "awesome" and "exciting") Chinese film for years.

Its black humor and double-talk imply subtexts that could be interpreted in different ways. Popular lines include: "I want to make money by standing straight" (meaning many people do not make their money in legal ways); and "Are you Zhang Mazi (pockmarks on face)? There is no pockmark on your face. How about Huang Si- (means four) lang, there is no four on his face either." (This is sarcasm, meaning content and form are not the same thing, ridiculing the fact that China is socialist in name but capitalist in nature, or that what the authorities say and do are always different.)

In one scene, Tang tells Zhang that they have come to the wrong place, where people are very poor because "we are too late. The previous mayors have already collected taxes for the next 90 years, till the year 2010." Besides being a criticism of state coffers outgrowing people’s income, and a stab at corrupt officials, environmentalists could read this line as a message that the country has pursued fast economic growth at the price of its environment.

In another scene, bandit-turned mayor Zhang tells people who petition against injustice and unfairness outside his office: "The emperor is dead. There is no emperor any more. Don’t go down on your knees. I came to Goose city for three purposes only: fairness, fairness, and fairness."

And the goal of fairness is not easy to achieve, then and now.

In one surrealistic scene, Zhang's son is trapped by Huang, claiming he has eaten two bowls of rice noodle but only paid for one. The young man says it is unfair to ask him pay for a bowl of rice noodles that he did not eat. To prove his innocence, he cuts into his belly toshow he has just eaten one bowl. Watching the young man's blood splashing on the screen, viewers cannot help but think of those who sought fairness but experienced only tragedy in recent years.

In 2009, a Henan worker, trying to claim compensation from his employer, cut his chest to prove his work-related lung illness. In another case in booming Zhejiang province, Qian Yunhui, the 53-year-old chief of a village, was hit and killed by a heavy truck on Christmas Day, after his six-year fight against land acquisition.

Despite local authorities saying it was an accident, a photo of Qian, with his bloody head and hands seen under truck wheels, was quickly posted online and stirred up public anger.

In an apparent bid to soothe public anger over corruption and social unfairness, Beijing authorities recently unveiled a huge statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square, the heart of the capital city of China. Confucius is famous for advocating a harmonious social order and deference to authority. An online movie comment said the authorities erected a Confucius statue at a time of growing social unrest because they hope people will endure instead of protest,.

One online comment asked how the relevant authorities could give the green light to such a subversive movie. Indeed, this is puzzling. Maybe because Let The Bullets Fly makes cinema a venue for people to vent their discontent and anger over current social evils and injustice, and in this way helps to sustain social stability.

It is still too early to fully comprehend the phenomenon the movie has become. Perhaps we have to do as bandit chief Zhang suggests at the very beginning of the film: "Let the bullets fly, for a while." 

Robert Hartmann is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong. 

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