Thursday, April 5, 2012

Yes, do let them (or, Wilder at heart)

Posted By on 04.05.12 at 12:30 PM

Jiang Wen (seated) and his bandit gang let the bullets fly.
  • Jiang Wen (seated) and his bandit gang let the bullets fly.
Tonight’s your last chance to see Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly before it ends its weeklong run at Facets Multimedia (though if you pass it up in favor of Block Cinema’s free screening of The Home and the World or Doc Films’ revival of Fulltime Killer, I guess I can’t blame you). It’s the most entertaining movie to play Chicago in at least a month, rich in verbal wit, big action sequences, and historical detail—and striking a harmonious balance between all three. In my short review last week, I invoked both Shakespeare and Billy Wilder to describe the classical pleasures of Jiang’s comic storytelling; I also could have mentioned Sergio Leone to describe his epic sense of scale. It’s easy to understand why Bullets is the highest-grossing domestic production in mainland Chinese history—if only a larger U.S. distributor picked it up, the film could’ve been a crossover hit like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The similarities between Jiang and Wilder are worth exploring. For one thing, Wilder—one of the movies’ most beloved cynics—would have surely admired the central premise of Let the Bullets Fly: a ruthless bandit (played by Jiang) becomes a populist hero not out of any sense of duty to the poor townspeople he’s scamming, but because he wants to stick it to the crime lord (Chow Yun-Fat, relishing the chance to play a comic villain and delivering some of his finest work) who’s a better scammer than he is. A similar irony formed the basis of Jiang’s Devils at the Doorstep (2000), the only other film of his I’ve seen. In Devils, Jiang played a peasant living under the Japanese occupation of World War II. He comes to care for a Japanese hostage as if the man were family because he’s terrified of being killed by the renegade group that put the hostage in his charge.

800px-Billy_Wilders_grave__978339409_.jpg
These films advance a fully developed view of human nature, acknowledging universal foibles like selfishness and cowardice, yet recognizing our capacity for virtue in spite of—if not because of—these things. They recall the Wilderian narratives of Some Like It Hot or Avanti!, in which self-serving heroes get backed into bettering themselves, not only in their crooked moral conclusions, but in the leisurely paths they take in reaching them. Wilder’s comedies may be celebrated as classics of the genre, but it’s worth noting that many of them contain long stretches that aren’t funny. The films that he cowrote with I.A.L. Diamond (his last dozen, from Love in the Afternoon through Buddy Buddy) tend to break up the comic tension with scenes that indulge in the characters for their own sake. They have the effect of making the big laughs feel even funnier, providing release after several minutes of dramatic buildup. They also make spectators more invested in the comedy, since it involves people they’re more likely to care about.

Though Judd Apatow’s Funny People took some steps towards resurrecting it, this patient strain of comedy is all but extinct in Hollywood filmmaking. More common is the frenetic, hard-sell approach of 21 Jump Street, which is so determined to make you laugh every 15 seconds that few of the jokes stay in your memory for much longer than that (I love Airplane! as much as the next guy, but I suspect it did more harm than good). Let the Bullets Fly reminds you that comedy can provide more lasting lessons than drama when it takes the time to try.

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