Pulling out all the stops to Let the Bullets Fly

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Pulling out all the stops to Let the Bullets Fly

Chow Yun-fat, Jiang Wen and Ge You in Let the Bullets Fly. [Photos Provided to China Daily]

The man Time magazine calls the nation's boldest director has made only four films in 17 years, but each is a carefully crafted work marking a milestone in Chinese cinema.

Among the many unforgettable lines in Let the Bullets Fly, director Jiang Wen's new film, is this one: "Who says one has to kneel to make money? I make money standing firmly!" "Who doesn't want to do that?" the 47-year-old director tells China Daily when asked whether the line echoes his own beliefs.

Time magazine calls Jiang "China's gruffest actor and boldest director". He has made only four films in 17 years, but each one is acknowledged as a milestone in Chinese cinema. At 31, Jiang's first directorial work, In the Heat of the Sun, set against the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), was the most discussed and watched film in China in 1994 and was chosen as one of the 100 best Chinese films of the century, by Asia Weekly Magazine.

His second film Devils on the Doorstep, full of black humor, is about the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), and won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 2000. The controversial The Sun also Rises in 2007 again demonstrated his outstanding talents with its unique narrative and wild imagination.

As an actor Jiang has been dubbed China's Marlon Brando, for his powerful performances in films such as Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum; as a director he is often referred to as the local Quentin Tarantino - a creative genius who has won both critical and popular acclaim.

All of Jiang's works have his distinctive style: masculinity, thoughtfulness and imagination.

And so it is with Bullets, a 132-minute drama to premiere on Dec 16. It will remind many of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds but has a bit of everything: black humor, slapstick comedy, politics, and gangsterism. This heady mixture has never been seen in mainland cinema.

Take its opening scene: A train is hurtling forward, but the steam is coming from a huge hotpot inside. Several white horses are pulling the train, in which three people sit around the hotpot, belting out weird tunes. A bandit standing on the mountain along the rail line shoots, but the train does not stop. "Let the bullets fly," he says. Seconds later the train tumbles into a river - and he is left shooting at the halters of the horses.

Explaining his use of horses for the scene, Jiang insists movies should be impressive and magnificent. Otherwise, why make them, he says.

"My films are wine, not water," he used to say. "Only some of them are too strong, they become ethanol."

An example is The Sun also Rises, his last film made with 80 million yuan ($11.8 million) but which grossed only 30 million yuan. Although critics hailed it, few viewers could understand what the flights of fantasy in the four-episode narrative set in 1950s-70s China was all about.

But Jiang will not admit to any disappointment over the film's box office failure.

"The Sun also Rises was not made to be understood but to move the audience," he says. "Aren't you often moved by nature? Do you understand nature? You are touched by your wife's delivery of a baby, but do you understand it?"

Bullets is different. Anthony Wong, who starred in The Sun also Rises, says that Jiang wants to prove he can also make a film that is understandable and profitable. Jiang himself summarizes the film as a modern-day Robin Hood's battle with a town bully.

"It would be hard not to understand this time," Jiang jokes, but says more seriously. "But whether or not a film is easy to understand has nothing to do with its power."

He has tried hard to make Bullets an accessible story to most viewers, struggling with 30 drafts of the script, and tried even harder to ensure it is a powerful one.

A perfectionist, he was still in the studio busy with the sound mixing for the film an hour before the promotion ceremony in Beijing on Dec 6. Some journalists had already left when he arrived.

"How can I show you the film when it is not perfect?" he said explaining why he was late to promote his own film.

He is known for making sure he gets every shot to look exactly as he wants it, even if it overshoots the time or budget.

"My producer often told me 70 percent is enough," he says. "I want to obey him, but I really wonder, what is 70 percent? The only thing I can do is to leave no flaws."

When making In the Heat of the Sun he painted a 30-meter high chimney half gray and half red. To make The Sun also Rises, he used hundreds of birds, and dyed their feathers in the colors he wanted.

In Bullets, for a scene in which the three leading actors, Chow Yun-fat, Ge You and himself debate at a banquet, he brought in three special cameras from the United States and it takes up a fifth of the film. And to create a road he believes the town in the film should have, he had tons of red soil from Yunnan province transported over 1,500 km to the set in Guangzhou.

"He wants everything perfect," says his sound recordist Wu Ling. "If there was no deadline for the premiere, he would have kept editing and editing, even if the viewers would not have noticed any difference. For example, the sound of slapping one's face is usually made by hitting an arm, but he would not have it. Just look at the actor's face, it's all red."

Jiang does not like talking about the box office. A director should not care too much about money, he claimed when making Devils 10 years ago. And in 2007, when some reporters told him audiences found it hard to understand the storyline of The Sun also Rises, which would hurt the box office, he said: "Watch it again."

He continues to believe he can make money, without bending his knees in compromise.

"I don't know how to sell a movie," he says. "I know only how to make a good one."

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