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.

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

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.

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