Jiang Wen's Gone with the Bullets shot down by Chinese film-goers
Despite his latest film being nominated for a Golden Bear award, director Jiang Wen has incurred the wrath of critics and public alike on the mainland. The irony is not lost on him
Of late, Jiang Wen's life seems to be imitating his art. It's a tragicomic turn for the acclaimed Chinese actor-director, not unlike the fate that befalls the protagonist in his new film, Gone with the Bullets.
Loosely based on a real-life character in 1920s Shanghai, the film tells the story of a playboy, renamed Ma Zouri (Jiang Wen), whose murder of a high-class escort causes a sensation in the city and spawns a slew of stage productions, comedy routines and even a film that many consider the country's first docu-drama.
"It's as if [mainland] audiences are acting out my movie," Jiang says when we meet the morning after the film's Hong Kong premiere. "They're playing out the relationship between Ma Zouri and audiences [of the docu-drama]."
Released on the mainland on December 18 amid much hype, the production is the second of Jiang's planned trilogy set in Beiyang in northeast China during the early Republican period. The first, Let the Bullets Fly (2010), was a critical and commercial success. But Jiang has run into trials with the new production that seem to have uncanny parallels with its plot.
He plays flamboyant man about town Ma, who stages an extravagant beauty pageant with a policeman friend (Ge You) in a scheme to launder money for a warlord's son. But when Ma wakes up next to the corpse of a well-known escort (Shu Qi) the following morning, he goes on the run with his erstwhile buddy giving chase. Eventually captured, Ma is persuaded to appear in a film about his case before meeting his fate.
According to Jiang, its biggest point of departure from the original case is to have the fugitive play himself in the docu-drama, when, in reality, the role went to a friend of the murder suspect.
"I think this makes the story more Shakespearean," says Jiang. "[It's about] how a person can face the public, society, or the people who are hostile ... How does a person react when confronted with such criticism?"
Jiang, who turned 52 this month, knows a thing or two about being the focus of criticism. When it's put to him that many Chinese viewers have struggled to identify his film's central messages, he retorts: "It's a lot worse. They've called it an awful movie, the worst film they've ever seen. It's not just ordinary citizens, some critics say that, too. They're angry."
Importantly, Gone with the Bullets has also offended the authorities. Its gala premiere in China had to be called off when state censors demanded nearly 40 changes because of allegedly sensitive material, mostly in the dialogue.
"Of course, I don't think any of it is sensitive," Jiang says. "I have no idea what the censors see." He quips: "After the changes, nobody can understand the film any more."
Unfortunately, these obstacles with Gone with the Bullets don't come as a surprise given Jiang's form.
His directorial debut, In the Heat of the Sun (1994), was held for 18 months before it was allowed to be screened in China. Jiang's second film, the Sino-Japanese War satire Devils on the Doorstep (2000), earned him a seven-year ban from directing and remains prohibited for public screenings.
"Many filmmakers have had that experience," he says. "They make a movie, then out of nowhere they either pass censorship or fail. It's like immigration. Some unlucky people encounter this, like me, [fellow director] Tian Zhuangzhuang and some others.
"But I don't think [censored] films are necessarily bad. On the contrary, these might be the more responsible productions."
Is that because they deal with important issues? "Yes," he says. "For such a big country with such a long history, while its movies can be products for entertainment, it should be permissible to talk about serious topics once in a while, right?"
Not by the looks of it. Since the success of Let the Bullets Fly, which many viewers interpreted as a political allegory, there have been persistent rumours that censors are under pressure to clamp down on the prominent actor-director. A proposed sequel to Let the Bullets Fly has already been rejected by Chinese film regulators.
Jiang concedes that he hadn't anticipated the many interpretations audiences have read into the 2010 production.
"I thought it was an easily comprehensible film and a relatively commercial one at that," he says. "I don't object to any approach my audiences want to see the film, but their imagination is sometimes too vivid."
As example, Jiang cites how one viewer saw that film's opening sequence of a derailing train as "the overturning of Marxism-Leninism in China".
"This, I think, is too much," he says. "My films are not made for this reason. This is too easy, too obvious, and it isn't art."
Jiang proclaims little interest in politics ("I'm not allowed to be interested"), but he has a passion for history. "I'm interested in history. Let me put it this way: I'm interested in the truth. By reading and rereading history, you will realise the difficulty in finding the truth now. It's a pity.
"In any case, I can't make a film about [contemporary issues] now. It would be rejected instantly by censors and there'd be worse trouble. I turned to historical films because they pass censors more easily. When you write about [current matters], what can you write? There'll be problems if you deal with real stories."
A graduate of the Central Academy of Drama, Jiang understands the importance of irony from his theatre studies. "Whether it's Shakespeare or Molière, irony is a key component in the construction of theatre. A script would be pretty bad if it was devoid of irony."
However, the irony in Jiang's films is often unappreciated. His evoking the social climate of greed in Gone with the Bullets, for example, soon drew accusations from China's nouveau riche that he was mocking them.
"I think the problem is that we're not so far from history. It's hard to avoid writing about the newly rich in a Beiyang-set story. People may wonder: 'Are you talking about me?' But I'm not talking about anyone in particular. Of course, they may still feel uncomfortable."
Against this wave of negative sentiment, it might be tempting to dismiss the elaborate movie as the miscalculated effort of a narcissist - Jiang not only directed and co-wrote the script, he appears in almost every scene. However, Jiang insists it's not his bloated ego at work.
"Painters who do self-portraits are engaging in a form of narcissism. But it doesn't work like that in movies. A truly narcissistic person wouldn't go into filmmaking because it's just too tiring."
For now, Jiang may find distraction from critics at home at the Berlin International Film Festival, which has selected Gone with the Bullets for the competition category. It is a belated vindication for Jiang to vie for the Golden Bear alongside filmmakers such as Terrence Malick and Jafar Panahi.
But then Jiang is no stranger to accolades. In the Heat of the Sun won six gongs at Taiwan's Golden Horse awards and saw its 17-year-old lead, Xia Yu, take the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival, while Devils on the Doorstep snatched the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
With his unabashedly commercial latest effort, the director seems to have bucked the trend of festivals shutting out glossy blockbusters from competition. Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, which is similar to Gone with the Bullets in theme and scale, was shown out of competition at Cannes, for example.
Jiang brightens up at the idea: "Maybe mine is really a commercially packaged art film? Or maybe this indicates a change in attitude towards Chinese movies; in the past, Chinese films were usually set in rural villages or about people living on the edge."
Pausing, he adds, "Then again, [the character] Ma Zouri is also living on the edge."
Jiang believes the shift of interest in festival organisers over Chinese entries has little to do with the films themselves.
"In the past 30 years, the relationship between China and the world has changed. In the past, people thought that China was a mysterious country. There was a lot of misreading.
"In the end, it's about power and influence. When people realise that China is the world's second largest economy, they don't look at your mysteries, they look at your GDP."
While his countrymen may be ready to embrace the world, there's no telling when they'll fully accept Jiang. Even news of his participation in Berlin has brought a backlash. Some accused him of making the movie for foreigners. He did not set out to provoke critics, he says, but "it looks like they really are angry". Like a hopeless character in an absurdist play would, he bursts into bitter laughter.
Gone with the Bullets opens on January 29