Political satire has movie fans buzzing about the inferences
A dark political satire from one of China's most notorious directors has set the mainland blogosphere alight with chatter about possible hidden meanings, nuances and indirect criticism of the government.
Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly, a historical action-comedy set in the lawless warring years following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, weaves a complicated tale laden with corruption, the abuse of official power and greed - with a dash of people power (or its futility) thrown in.
The film has raised eyebrows with what many read to be a thinly veiled critique of the central government and one-party rule.
Apparent references to dissent, corruption and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown have been inferred from the complex and at times confusing film that blends cat-and-mouse intrigue and absurdness with classic elements of Robin-Hood-esque rebellion against oppression.
The film, which also stars Hong Kong veterans Chow Yun-fat and Carina Lau Kar-ling alongside mainland actor Ge You, has been the top attraction in mainland cinemas since its December 16 release.
The action takes place in a small provincial town named Echeng - literally Goose City - around 1920, and tells the tale of an apparent bandit attempting to pass himself off as the town's newly appointed governor.
The film opens with Zhang Muzhi (Jiang) and his gang holding up a private train carrying corrupt official Ma Bangde (Ge) en route to taking up his position in the city, one which he acquired by bribing higher levels of government.
Zhang takes Ma and his wife hostage, assuming the official's identity with the apparent objective of milking the town dry of cash.
As with most of Jiang's film's, however, all is not quite as it seems.
It soon becomes clear Zhang has more on his mind than simply striking it rich, particularly when vicious local warlord Huang Silang (Chow) enters the fray.
Despite numerous opportunities to withdraw as a rich man, Zhang refuses to take 'poor people's money' and sets his sights on the fortune Huang has amassed trafficking human labour to build railways in the United States and by securing a virtual monopoly on the tobacco trade.
The parallels to corrupt officials in peripheral mainland cities making their fortunes through agricultural land grabs and the state-controlled cigarette industry are hard to ignore.
Using the fictional past to satirise the political present is an old trick. Framing the corruption neatly in the early republican era - a period which mainland propaganda has traditionally depicted as a hotbed of graft and sleaze - gives Jiang a handy excuse for denying it refers to the current system. Is it merely a coincidence, for example, that Zhang has a gang of six comrades to take on a warlord with the Chinese character for four in his name, or is that an intentional reference to the June 4 crackdown in Tiananmen?
When Zhang's adopted son Brother Six dies, his tomb is marked with a wooden sculpture of a raised fist making the Chinese hand-signal for the number six. It could also be argued that another gravestone later in the film bears a passing resemblance to the 1989 student activists' Goddess of Democracy statue.
Late in the film, Ge's character confesses that he had only led Zhang to Echeng as a test, and his commission was actually another city called Kangcheng - the Chinese name for Cannes.
Ge won the best actor award at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival for his role in Zhang Yimou's To Live, an epic personal tale spanning the decades of revolution from the and which was banned by mainland censors.