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 Is this a critique of modern-day China, represented as an outdated ideology powered by an outdated technology (horses) in modern trappings (a train), whose impressive law enforcement might is easily neutralized by more flexible criminals and corrupt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.