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Subtitles & Sensibility: Let the Bullets Fly & K-20

Let the Bullets Fly is currently the highest-grossing Chinese-language film ever. Essentially a western, it opens with a classic bandit attack on a train. Said train is carrying a new mayor (You Ge) to Goose Town, but since his motives were none-too-pure to start with, he and his wife (Carina Lau) cut a deal with the bandit chief (Wen Jiang, also the director & screenwriter), and off they go to profit.

Profiting turns out to be not that simple, because there’s already a gang in charge and they’re in no hurry to give up their power, let alone their money. Thus we begin with a game of many wits and surprisingly few bullets, double crossing and triple crossing, and hardly a lady in sight beyond the sadly underused Lau, now posing as the wife of the bandit chief.

I was excited to see it because I have been known to enjoy ridiculous, over-the-top action movies, and because, like everyone, I am a fan of Yun-Fat Chow. Unfortunately, the film is over-long, often confusing, and not nearly as funny as it thought it was.

For example, in theory I like the idea of subverting expectations by casting Yun-Fat Chow as the villain gang leader, but in practice, it would have been nice if he had been given something more to do than laugh uproariously at his own cleverness and mug a bit as his own double.

Tonally, it doesn’t work. Obviously a film can be both violent and funny, but it is a delicate balance. A drawn-out scene where a character was manipulated into slicing open his own stomach and a (mercifully offscreen) gang rape were probably intended as further indications of just how bad our bad guy was, but they were also played for laughs, taking me right out of the film.

Let the Bullets Fly does offer lush cinematography and great images (particularly the horse-drawn train, even if the attack effect itself was lacking), and it references everything from Red Cliff to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid with the broadest of winks, but in the end it isn’t universal enough to work.

Since seeing the film I’ve read in a few places that the humor in particular requires a deeper knowledge of Chinese culture than I have personally, and that it has political undertones (or even overtones) which were largely lost on me. Nonetheless, a better film would have worked on multiple levels.

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In contrast, K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces was wicked fun both times I saw it: first at a packed film festival screening and later at home. It’s also an over-the-top, vaguely historical action film. The set-up with K-20 is that WWII never happened, the aristocracy still controls the vast majority of the wealth in Japan, and there is no class mobility.

Against this backdrop swoops K-20, a failed Robin Hood who steals from the rich and keeps it all for himself. He sets up Heikichi Endo (the always-charming Takeshi Kaneshiro), a circus acrobat & illusionist, to take the fall for him.

Since K-20‘s genre of choice is the superhero movie, this injustice sets up Endo to become the hero. With the help of a band of thieves and a band of orphans, he launches into the obligatory training montage. It’s parkour and disguise training rather than the traditional swordsmanship or the like, which is a lot of fun, and Endo’s goal is simple: to clear his name so he can return to the circus.

Along the way he encounters the baron-slash-detective (Tôru Nakamura) who is hunting K-20, as well as the detective’s fiancée (Takako Matsu). She’s a delight, a duchess who considers self-defense “just part of being a lady”.

The film is a little long, but the plot keeps moving at a decent pace, hitting all the points of the classic origin story and a villain off to steal some massive technological weapon. Character-wise I am a big fan of Yoko, the fiancée, who is clever and resourceful, rescuing others far more often than she is rescued.

Visually the movie is pure eye-candy, from the wild steampunk world of the upper class to the dense maze of Thieves’ Alley. And sure, we’ve seen it all before, but it’s still a great ride through all of the best bits stolen from the golden age of comics, with an acrobat and a duchess fighting crime.

All in all K-20 is an absurd movie, but it knows that full well that it’s absurd, and it doesn’t take that as an excuse to sacrifice character development. We care about these people even as we’re suspending our disbelief from here to Japan, and as the end credits rolled (both times!) I wished I knew when I could queue for a sequel.


Review copy of K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces provided by New People Entertainment.

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About Jaci Dahlvang

Jaci Dahlvang works for a community-based nonprofit organization by day and is an undercover librarian at heart. She was a film critic for her college paper junior year and never got over it, and now she writes about film at My Socks Are On Fire. She'll watch everything from art films to goofy blockbusters, but she prefers anything in which ladies are allowed to be awesome. She spends far too much time on Twitter discussing all of these things plus knitting and coffee. The more movies she sees, the more she needs to see. Keep up with her film writing by liking My Socks Are On Fire on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Now I really want to watch K-20. :)

    • Jaci Dahlvang says:

      Mission accomplished! I really have yet to be steered wrong choosing films starring Kaneshiro. He’s freakin’ adorable, but he also is gifted comically, which I approve of.

  2. “Since seeing the film I’ve read in a few places that the humor in particular requires a deeper knowledge of Chinese culture than I have personally, and that it has political undertones (or even overtones) which were largely lost on me.”

    Now I want to see Let the Bullets Fly just to see if I would pick up those undertones/overtones, though honestly, I have a better handle of Taiwanese culture/politics than Chinese culture/politics.

    • Jaci Dahlvang says:

      If you do, please report back! After I had written down my impressions I read a few other pieces, and there seems to be a real divide between those who have that background and those who don’t.



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