The Most Popular Chinese Movie of All Time

It’s a Western. It’s a comedy. It’s a critique of corruption. It’s a send-up of the Chinese movie industry. It’s going to confuse the hell out of Americans.

Let the Bullets Fly, the highest-grossing movie of all time in China

Emperor Motion Pictures.

The easiest way to sell a Chinese movie in America is to slap the words “Banned in China” across its poster. Suddenly, the movie takes on an aura of authenticity. We assume that it must be speaking truth to power in a way that makes Chinese authorities uncomfortable. A lot of movies attempts to cash in on this attitude: Too low-budget for audiences back home, they play the political angle and hope to win favor at overseas film festivals, looking for an international buyer and awards prestige. Many of these movies aren’t even actually banned. Most were never submitted to SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television) in the first place, or they were denied release because of legal problems like a lack of location permits, rather than their politics.

Now the “Banned in China” label has become even more meaningless, because the most savage anti-corruption movie ever made in China, and the most cynical comedy about state-sponsored criminality, has not only received an official release, it has become the most popular Chinese movie of all time. Let the Bullets Fly came out in December 2010 and by the end of January 2011 it had shattered the previous record for highest-grossing Chinese language movie and become the second-highest-grossing movie ever released in China, second only to James Cameron’s Avatar.

Its director, Jiang Wen (also its star and its writer), is a popular actor turned art-house director whose Devils on the Doorstep played the Cannes film festival in 2000 before the movie received its official approval—a move that got him blacklisted by SARFT and barred from directing for seven years. His comeback movie, The Sun Also Rises, was a lush, magical realist head-scratcher set during the Cultural Revolution that flopped hard and saw Jiang Wen publicly curse “stupid” audiences. He swore that his next film would be a hit and, 30 script drafts later, Let the Bullets Fly emerged. This Friday, it opens in the United States where it’s bound to baffle moviegoers expecting yet another epic Chinese action film.

An Eastern Western full of train robberies, masked bandits, and shoot-outs in dry gulches, the movie is set in the 1920s during China’s Warlord Period, when the country was torn into kleptocratic fiefdoms. A famous bandit named Pockmark Zhang (Jiang Wen) robs a train and in the process kills the new governor of Goose Town, who was en route to assuming his post. It turns out that the governor purchased his title, and now that he’s an ex-governor there’s nothing to keep Pockmark Zhang from stealing his identity. Realizing that there’s more money to be made inside the system than outside, Zhang takes on the role of the governor, and enlists the governor’s aide (Ge You, China’s most popular actor) and his wife (Hong Kong actress Carina Lau) to his cause. When he arrives in town, he finds that a bigger gangster, Master Huang (played sometimes by Chow Yun-fat and sometimes by Wen Xiang, a Chow Yun-fat look-a-like), is already bleeding Goose Town dry. The film becomes a battle of wits between these two crooks, one disguised as an official and one disguised as a local businessman, each fighting over who has the right to rob Goose Town’s citizens.

It’s rare for a movie this mean-spirited to be such a crowd-pleaser, but Chinese audiences took up the cause of Bullets with a vengeance. Analyses of its symbolism and its fast-paced, double-talk dialogue jammed the Internet. Some critics saw the movie as an attack on corruption, some saw it as an attack on the mainstream film industry, some saw it as a conservative film, some saw it as liberal, some saw it as merely a thrill ride, some saw it as a hilarious comedy—but everyone saw it. In America, audiences are liable to find the popularity of this uniquely Chinese movie puzzling, as it traffics in that most Chinese of art forms, pure metaphor.

Chinese art has always prized metaphor, and the state-controlled media has forced those with a point of view to learn how to say one thing while meaning another. In 2009, for example, the Grass Mud Horse became a pervasive meme in China, with stuffed animals, songs, and music videos about this gentle, alpaca-like creature spreading across the Chinese internet like LOLCats. Outsiders were confused, but for most Chinese the Grass Mud Horse was clearly a savage protest against Internet censorship. Hundreds of sites had recently been shut down by the government for violating laws against sensitive speech, both of a political and a pornographic nature, and keyword filters were everywhere. Suddenly, an article appeared on Baidu, a popular Chinese version of Wikipedia, describing 10 mythical Chinese animals, including the Grass Mud Horse, which found its fertile grasslands jeopardized by the spread of invasive river crabs. The characters in its name, when pronounced with different tones, mean “f— your mother,” the phrase “fertile grass” uses characters that can read as “f— me,” and river crabs, with a slight tweak, sound like “harmony,” a play on the “harmonious society,” which is the Communist Party’s official slogan for its future goal.

In the culture that produced the Grass Mud Horse, deep readings of Let the Bullets Fly are unavoidable. The opening scene depicts Pockmark Zhang robbing Governor Ma’s train, which is pulled by horses. “Ma” the Mandarin word for “horse” is also sometimes used as shorthand for Marxism. When the train is attacked, soldiers fire out of its gun ports in rigid, fixed lines, and their bullets are easily ducked by Pockmark Zhang’s gang. Is this a critique of modern-day China, represented as an outdated ideology powered by an outdated technology (horses) in modern trappings (a train), whose impressive law enforcement might is easily neutralized by more flexible criminals and corrupt officials?

Or is it a critique of the Chinese film industry? Consider that the soon-to-be-deceased governor is played by Feng Xiaogang, China’s most popular director, whose movie Aftershock was the highest-grossing Chinese language movie of all time before it was unseated by Bullets. Here is China’s greatest director, and a party favorite, playing a criminal, eating hotpot and singing songs with China’s most popular male lead, Ge You, who is portrayed as an opportunist, and a Hong Kong actress, Carina Lau, who is portrayed as a money-hungry prostitute. Feng is then killed by the character played by Jiang Wen—a director who has made a career out of conflict with SARFT.

So which metaphors are intentional, and which ones have been imagined by the audience? What, exactly, is Bullets sending up? No one’s quite sure, and Jiang Wen isn’t telling—which has only encouraged more of the kind of deep reading that gave the film its legs in the first place.

Bullets is unambiguous is in its critique of corruption, however. Political corruption is endemic in China, a country in which the director of the State Food and Drug Administration was executed in 2007 for approving thousands of dangerous medicines, and in which the former mayors of Fuyang, Xiamen, Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shenzhen, and Kaifeng have all been either sentenced to prison or executed for corruption. In this atmosphere, it’s easy to see why Bullets has been so successful. Every cry for public order in Bullets camouflages a power grab by an official, public opinion is nothing more than a tool to be manipulated by the authorities, criminals become politicians and politicians only gain office through criminal acts, and the people are ultimately the ones who suffer. A running gag in the film shows Jiang Wen’s thugs riding through town at night, throwing sacks of money to the people of Goose Town to win their favor. Cut to Master Huang’s thugs riding through town and taking the money back. But the focus of these scenes is on the sacks of money, which smash glass as they fly through windows, break furniture when they land, and attract attention from criminals, who rape and rob the hapless recipients of this official largess. As in present-day China, when corruption runs rampant, the victim ends up being the people those officials are supposed to serve.

In the United States, we tend to think that the problem facing China is a lack of freedom, hence the popularity of “Banned in China” as a badge of authenticity. But in reality, the biggest problem facing China is the lack of the rule of law. To a Chinese audience, Let the Bullets Fly is an unapologetic critique of the powers that be. It’s astounding that an outsider like Jiang Wen has been allowed to make a state-sanctioned movie that sends up state-sanctioned corruption. What’s even more astounding is that it’s been allowed to become the most popular Chinese movie ever made. In a country where SARFT can, and often does, pull a movie from theaters if its huge grosses become an embarrassment due to its content or country of origin, Bullets’ massive success is unquestionably state-sanctioned. China is a country of subtle signals, where slight signs from on high can indicate shifts of power and priorities among the politburo. Last year, the Bank of China published a report claiming that since 1990, 18,000 government officials have fled China, taking with them an estimated $120 billion in illegal assets. That’s equivalent to the entire Chinese budget for education from 1978 to 1998, and it’s considered a lowball estimate. The popularity of Bullets may be a sign that the days when the law turned a blind eye to this kind of corruption are coming to an end.