Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Let the Bullets Fly Takes China’s Domestic Box Office Crown

The dirty three: Ge You, Chow Yun-Fat and Jiang Wen star in Jiang's new "Eastern Western" Let the Bullets Fly.

A quick news bite and reason to celebrate – Jiang Wen’s visually stunning Leone-influenced “Eastern Western” Let the Bullets Fly recently became China’s biggest domestically-produced box office hit according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The report states: “On Sunday, Jan. 16, Bullets had sold tickets worth 641,740,000 yuan (US$ 97,428,990) Beijing-based EntGroup said, citing data it collects from theaters with computerized ticketing systems – a pool made up of about 97% of China's roughly 2,000 theaters.”

Jiang has a string of acclaimed directorial credits under his belt, including Devils on the Doorstep (2000) and his 1994 masterpiece In the Heat of the Sun. In the West he's probably better known for his acting roles, which include the male lead opposite a young Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's debut Red Sorghum (1987), and the ex-convict lead in Xie Fei's remarkable portrait of Beijing street life, Black Snow (1990).

Let the Bullets Fly sees Jiang well and truly in form, playing the central role as well as directing. It’s great to see such an original and visually inventive film knocking previous record holders Aftershock and Founding of a Republic off the top box office perch. It’s also been interesting to observe just how little attention this film has received in the Chinese state media compared to the wall-to-wall coverage afforded the aforementioned party-backed blockbusters.

While Founding was open CCP propaganda, and Aftershock neatly expurgated any aspects of the Tangshan earthquake disaster that might cast the party in a negative light, Bullets culminates in a none-too-subtle uprising against a decadent and corrupt town leadership dominated by a godfather-like crime boss – hardly a comforting message for a government riven with graft and corruption.

It’s also notable that the version of Bullets showing in China has not been subtitled in English – unlike Aftershock and Founding of a Republic. Unfortunately, that makes the film’s rapid-fire dialogue impossible to follow for a bad Chinese speaker like myself, but that didn’t stop me reveling in the sheer visual exuberance of it all when I caught the film in a Beijing theatre earlier this week. Playing beside Jiang in the quick-shooting shades-wearing outlaw lead role are Chow Yun-Fat as the local crime boss and Ge You as Jiang's somewhat reluctant partner.

Effortless cool - Jiang Wen in Let the Bullets Fly.

Bullets isn’t quite on par with In the Heat of the Sun, but it’s far and away the most entertaining and inventive mainland commercial movie I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t wait to see a subtitled version so I can get all the plot nuances!

Despite its popularity, Bullets may not hold China’s top domestic box office spot for long. Part of the reason for China's box office record being constantly broken in recent years is an ongoing massive expansion in the country’s cinema sector. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “China's box office rose 64% in 2010 to hit US $1.47 billion and a surge in wealth and theater building has made the territory the biggest outside the U.S. for four Hollywood blockbusters in the last 14 months.”

Another self congratulatory state-backed blockbuster entitled Founding of the Party is in the works, so the powers-that-be will no doubt be working to hard to ensure it takes to crown with the usual tactics – a release in a peak holiday season and the removal of all competition from the nation’s screens.

Markets economies are great when you control all the markets.

Gun play - a tense moment in Let the Bullets Fly.

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