A filmmaker’s real-life drama
JiangWen is China’s closest equivalent to Stanley Kubrick or OrsonWelles. And he keeps astounding an audience that seems to show a growing aversion for surprises, Raymond Zhou writes.
Most film stories have a three- act structure, and Jiang Wen’s new work had run through two of the acts by the time it opened.
First, it encountered a high-profile hurdle when it failed to receive the official green light and had to go through some last-minute revisions. This won him enormous public sympathy.
Then, the newly edited version, which was granted permission for screening, held a belated premiere ceremony.
Unlike such events that generate an avalanche of positive word-of-mouth since everyone in attendance is an invited guest, Gone With the Bullets ended up with so vicious a tide of negativity that some even suspected it was manufactured by the film studio’s publicity machine.
This was before the movie opened to a paying audience.
And Jiang had ridden a roller-coaster of being everyone’s favorite filmmaker to the arrogant artist who does not care to entertain the public with a good yarn.
To be fair, the responses from the “real” moviegoers have been more mixed, running the gamut from sterling praise to total yawn. But compared with the high hopes that had been building up from his previous work, Let the Bullets Fly, four years ago, this came too little and too late.
JiangWen feels like an outcast.
This reminds him of the fate of the main character in GoneWith the Bullets, who is played by himself.
Based on a real story in 1920, the movie portrays a college-educated young man —a rarity in China then — who murdered a prostitute for her money. It grabbed the public’s imagination to the extent that it spawned China’s first feature-length film, among many other retellings.
Jiang twisted the tale by making him responsible for the woman’s death but not a murderer.
Ma Zouri, the film’s protagonist, is into bragging and acting like Marlon Brando’s godfather — the first of numerous winks to classic movies — but in moments of truth he holds to his principles and refuses to compromise, which results in his own death.
When he is on the run, he is turned into a cardboard bad guy by the media and the public, who derive lots of pleasure from lynching him.
The analogy is clearly on Jiang’s mind, since he feels he is being unfairly lynched by a mob.
“Some people love to see me falter,” he tells China Daily.
“They were like this when my previous works came out. When Devils on the Doorstep was banned, there were celebrations.”
Whenasked whether some in the media intend to test their ability to establish idols and then topple them, Jiang thinks for a moment and says: “Nobody is in a position to do that. We filmmakers are ultimately evaluated by our works.”
Jiang elaborates that the character he plays in the movie does not necessarily reflect his own values or personality.
“Ma, in the first half of the movie, is much more unscrupulous than I’ll ever be. But, in the second half, he exhibits more integrity than I’mcapable of.”
The absurdist tone of the film is partly lost, Jiang believes, when the beauty contest in the opening scene was required to be toned down.
“It is an event for prostitutes yet voted by the glitterati of Shanghai, and the auction item for charity is the winner’s virginity. Can you imagine this actually happened in old Shanghai? But under layers of euphemisms, the sense of travesty is diminished. New Yorkers got it instantly when we tested the scene in that city.”
Jiang Wen does not make conventional movies.
His stories take place in a heightened ambience and some of the plots are so outlandish they beg for headscratching.
Yet, as he explains, even the wildest fancy can’t catch up with the madness of real life.
opens with a train drawn by horses, which engenders the popular interpretation that it was an analogy for Marxism and Leninism. (The Chinese words for “horse” and “train” happen to be the same as the acronyms for the Communist predecessors.)
But Jiang denies it flatly, saying horse-drawn trains existed insomeparts ofChina for decades, and he saw photos of them.
The beauty pageant in the new movie seems like a sendup of China’s showbiz, especially the ubiquitous reality programs and the all-important NewYear’s Eve Gala.
But, again, Jiang says it wasn’t meant to be so. He has made it a habit not to comment on specific interpretations but says most of them tend to be so narrow in focus they limit audience imagination rather than expand it.
As for the criticism that he is too “self-indulgent” this time, Jiang responds that it was “self-love”, not “self-indulgence”.
And among his targets for lampoon he has included himself — a point that has been noticed by some cinephiles.
Hung Huang, a noted publisher and socialite, defends himpublicly by saying that an artist has to have a certain degree of “self-indulgence”.
Hung has been winning kudos for her supporting performance as the warlord’s first wife.
What perplexed her and her director is the audience’s reaction toward her character.
“Are you sure you’re talking about the woman she plays in the film, not Hung herself?” asks Jiang.
“This is an abominable woman with no redeeming values whatsoever. I don’t understandwhypeople are so into her. Maybe they are subconsciously masochists.”
Hung expressed a similar shock on a separate occasion.
As for the subliminal scene of the warlord’s son and the detective carrying on a gay affair until they formally tie the knot, which eluded most viewers, Jiang explained the brevity of the description was due to star actorGeYou’s time constraints.
Jiang’s movies are invariably dense and rich with multiple strands and layers, often with little regard for narrative conventions.
But what he serves up is a world of hallucinatory delights.
And this may be too much for a society craving mundane pleasures.