For a Few Bullets
China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 115 mins.
Director: Pan Anzi 潘安子.
Disappointing period adventure has a good cast but a chaotic script and un-zingy setpieces.
Manchuria, 1940. On behalf of the invading Japanese, Chinese turncoat Song Jingzhi (Jin Rong) announces there will be a grand ceremony in Nanjing to celebrate the installation of a puppet Chinese government and Japan’s concept of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Soon afterwards, on the train to take him south, Song Jingzhi is shot by a female assassin. However, Oda Koki (Zeng Jiang), the Japanese commander, insists the ceremony will go ahead as planned and leaves for Nanjing. Meanwhile, China’s top swindler, Shi Fo, is reported to have come out of retirement to take advantage of the country’s chaos. Somewhere in China’s northwest, young gambler Zhuang (Lin Gengxin) is passing himself off as Shi Fo; but he’s rumbled and caught by two government agents, sharpshooter Li Ruoyun (Zhang Jingchu) and her deputy Zhang Peng (Han Pujun). They need him for a mission to recover a national treasure – the Four Dragon Rectangular Wine Vessel – that was raided from a recently discovered Yuan dynasty tomb by Russian warlord Kivinov. In three days’ time Kivinov, helped by Chinese businessman Xu Zonghan, is to use it to conclude a deal with the Japanese. The trio recover the vessel but are betrayed by Zhang Peng; in the process the vessel is shattered, revealing an inscribed block of jade. Zhang Peng escapes with the jade and Li Ruoyun and Zhuang shelter at the home of an old trader friend, Shi (Tenger), and his wife Jin Sanniang (Liu Xiaoqing). Shi tells them the jade is the long-lost, priceless imperial seal Yuxi, dating from the era of Qin Shihuang, that confers legitimacy on dynasties. Zhang Peng is taking it to Nanjing by train, but it must be kept out of Japanese hands at all costs. Li Ruoyun, Zhuang and Shi steal a plane from Kishinov’s aerodrome and catch up with the train at Shahe station, in the middle of the desert. However, the plane overshoots and crashes, and the trio finally board the train at the next stop, Tianming station. However, Zhang Peng is dead and the seal gone; and there just happens to be a deadly Japanese spy, Yoshizawa Miho (Shi Yufei), on the train.
From its Spaghetti Western-like English title to the hand-me-down content that plonks adventurers and sharpshooters in period Shanghai and Central Asia, there’s not an original element in the whole of For a Few Bullets 快手枪手快枪手. That wouldn’t matter if the whole thing had some kind of style or was at least trashy fun; but despite all the larking around and action antics, a sense of fun is at a premium in Bullets, which is also saddled with a chaotic script that makes little sense even on an escapist level and action sequences that lack any kind of zing. Saving the film almost on their own are the three leads – especially actress Zhang Jingchu 张静初 – who bring as much personality to their roles as the script and direction allow but not enough to prevent the picture from often looking like a second-rate Jiang Wen 姜文 romp.
It’s an especial disappointment coming from Nanjing-born Pan Anzi 潘安子, a writer-director in his late 30s from a theatre background who memorably took the stodge out of costume movies with his third feature, the fluidly directed and emotionally involving The Palace 宫 锁沉香 (2013). Bullets, his fourth feature, is actually Pan’s second crack at a big-budget, period caper movie, following the 2012 Scheme with Me 双城计中计, a less splashy but very enjoyable action-comedy set in 1920s Shanghai and the northwest desert that starred Taiwan actor-singer Ren Xianqi 任贤齐 [Richie Ren]. Set 16 years later, Bullets is in the same genre, and even continues the stories of two of Scheme‘s characters, but is much more overblown and far less fun. Despite its qualities, Scheme failed to make a box-office mark, grossing a mere RMB23 million; with its bigger-name cast, Bullets scored twice that amount but was still no hit.
Pan and co-writer Zhou Zhiyong 周智勇 – who worked on caper comedy Crazy Racer 疯狂的赛车 (2009), desert caper Welcome to Shamatown 决战刹马镇 (2010), as well as American Dreams in China 中国合伙人 (2013) – throw everything into the pot: a desert setting in western China, a finale in glamorous Shanghai, a female government sharpshooter, a young wannabe swindler, a wily old ethnic trickster, a plot about preventing a priceless jade seal from falling into evil Japanese hands, a handsome Chinese turncoat, a sexy Japanese spy, and fights and chases in planes, on trains and inside an ocean liner. There’s even a vaguely pervy villain in a cloak and gas mask who can replicate himself, plus a reference to Japan’s biological-warfare lab, Unit 731, that’s thrown in for good measure.
The problem is that hardly any of the elements click as they are meant to. Now 28, Lin Gengxin showed plenty of charm as the quack’s sidekick in Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon 狄仁杰之神都龙王 (2013) and opposite actress Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨 in the romance My Old Classmate 同桌的妳 (2014), but his attempt here at portraying a jokey, horny young hustler seems forced – and certainly isn’t strong enough to carry a movie of this size.
At a time when she seemed to be getting her career back on track (My Running Shadow 我的影子在奔跑, 2013; The Old Cinderella 脱轨时代, 2014), Zhang, 36, is initially strong as a sharpshooting government agent who blank-faces the young swindler’s sexual jibes; but she later becomes more of a helpless heroine once she’s out of trousers and into a qipao. Like fellow Mainland actress Yu Nan 余男, Zhang looks good in travesto and has convinced in occasional tough-gal roles (Jade Warrior 玉战士, 2006; City under Siege 全城戒备, 2010); she’s also no stranger to trashy audience-pleasers in which she gives more than required (Switch 天机•富春山居图, 2013). In Bullets she’s the main reason to stick around, but the writers basically have no idea what to do with her manga-like character after setting it up.
Reprising his sparkly-eyed swindler from Scheme with Me, Inner Mongolian actor Tenger 腾格尔 gives the film some mature class, but his role comes and goes, and the comic relationship with his brassy, former bandit-queen wife – lustily played in Scheme by Hong Kong’s Weng Hong 翁虹 but here, more over the top, by Mainland veteran Liu Xiaoqing 刘晓庆 in Central Asian chador – doesn’t really come off this time round. Half-Chinese Jin Rong 锦荣 [Vivian Dawson], from the last two Tiny Times 小时代 films, looks charismatic as a handsome turncoat but has no chemistry opposite Zhang, while Shi Yufei 施予斐 pouts briefly and acceptably as a lethal Japanese spy.
Despite the performances, the film still seems to be directed by someone with no genuine feel for action-entertainment: it’s no coincidence the best section is the 20 minutes in Shanghai (prior to the final heist) that relies more on character. Despite the efforts of three experienced Hong Kong editors, the big setpieces lack structure and bounce, not helped by a score from prolific Hong Kong composer Jin Peida 金培达 [Peter Kam] that’s among his feeblest. Action by Hong Kong’s Yang Deyi 杨德毅 (Zhongkui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal 钟馗伏魔 雪妖魔灵, 2015) is nothing special and, like the rest of the film, can’t make up its mind whether it’s out-and-out fantastic or more realist-based. Other technical credits are stronger, including the richly coloured widescreen images of d.p. Zou Lianyou 邹连友(The Palace) and east-west production design and costuming by Ma Shiqi 马士棋 (Nightmare 青魇, 2012) and Lai Xuanwu 赖宣吾 (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 龙门飞甲, 2011).
The film’s Chinese title is a play with words that could be roughly translated as “The Trickster, the Sharpshooter, the Tricky Sharpshooter”. The film was known during production as Evening Glow 火烧云.
Presented by Wanda Media (CN), Huace Pictures (CN), Beijing Heaven Culture Development (CN), Sky View Holding (CN), Beijing Yuehua Music Culture Communication (CN), Hengdian Film Production (CN), Golden World Pictures (CN), China Movie Channel (CN).
Script: Pan Anzi, Zhou Zhiyong. Photography: Zou Lianyou. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai], Mai Zishan [Marco Mak], Chen Zhiwei [Andy Chan]. Music: Jin Peida [Peter Kam]. Art direction: Ma Shiqi. Styling: Lai Xuanwu. Sound: Zhao Nan, Yang Jiang. Action: Yang Deyi.
Cast: Lin Gengxin (Zhuang), Zhang Jingchu (Li Ruoyun), Tenger (Shi Fo/Stone Buddha), Liu Xiaoqing (Jin Sanniang/Third Gold Lady), Jin Rong [Vivian Dawson] (Song Jingzhi), Zeng Jiang [Kenneth Tsang] (Oda Koki, Japanese commander; Gui Wushi/Phantom, executioner), Shi Yufei (Yoshizawa Miho, Japanese spy), Han Pujun (Zhang Peng), Han Qiuchi, Guo Dongdong, Han Xiao.
Release: China, 15 Jul 2016.