Wen Jiang (the last name is Jiang), a famous Chinese actor who also featured in
Zhang Yimou's film Red Sorghum,
debuted as director with Yangguang Canlan de Rizi/ In the Heat of the Sun (1994), a partially autobiographic adaptation of Wang Shuo's novel about life during the Cultural Revolution
which feels like a Chinese take on Fellini's Amarcord.
Like Fellini, Jiang mixes comedy, tragedy and existential spleen against
the backdrop of national and international political events.
The film has several allegorical elements, for example
the idiot who roams the streets of Beijing for 20 years despite all the changes,
and the parodies of the political orthodoxy (the
communist anthem played over the gang battle, the large crowd snobbing the communist film for a sexy Western film).
The core, however, is the moral growth of a neglected neighborhood kid in
the middle of a physical and moral devastation like the Cultural Revolution.
Despite all, they had fun and they remained friends.
The narrating voice of Xiaojun informs us that 20 years have gone by since the
Cultural Revolution and Beijing has changed a lot.
Xiaojun is the only son of a father who enrolled in the army and a hard-working mothers.
As a child, he wants to join his father in the army and become a hero.
He has three childhood friends with whom he plays.
In an early scene they are throwing knapsacks in the air, competing to throw them as high as possible. That scene segues into a scene where they are now
teenagers and roam the streets on their bicycles.
We also encounter the idiot of the village.
While Xiaojun is in school, we see a kid running out of a window, chased by
two adults, and losing one shoe in the process.
The kid then comes back and demands that the teacher returns his shoe.
The incident offers an opportunity for Xiaojun to sneak out of the classroom.
Xiaojun is not a thief but likes to open locked drawers with a homemade key.
In his father's drawer he discovers a condom and, without knowing what it is,
he blows it up like a balloon and then punctures it.
He then begins to break into people's apartments when they are away.
He doesn't steal anything. He just plays with the objects that he finds.
One day he enters an apartment and finds a telescope. While playing with it,
he discovers the photograph of a pretty girl wearing a swimsuit.
He falls in love with the girl.
The girl who hangs out with Xiaojun and his friends is instead Beipei,
introduced to them by a new member, the handsome Yiku.
Realizing that Xiaojun is actually a shy virgin, she tries to kiss him in
front of everybody.
Xiaojun returns to the apartment of the mysterious girl several times
and one day someone enters the apartment. He hides under the bed and can
only see her legs.
One day the five boys and Beipei are hanging outside the opera house when
an incident takes place (a music lover tried to sneak in pretending to be
a foreign dignitary) and Xiaojun is randomly arrested by the security guards.
The police terrorize him and eventually releases him when he starts crying
like a baby, but during the interrogation he sees a woman pass by and
recognizes her legs.
Back home he talks to himself in the mirror about his cowardice.
When the other kids call him because one of them has been beaten by another
gang, Xiaojun wants to prove that he is tough and, when they confront the
other gang, he almost kills a member of that gang with a brick (the soundtrack
here sardonically plays the international communist anthem).
Xiaojun and his friends shower in a public bath where Beipei makes fun of them
catching them naked. The handsome Yiku humiliates one of them who gets an
Then finally Xiaojun finds the mysterious girl. He tries to strike a conversation but she snobs him as too young for her.
He insists and the girl, Mi Lan, accepts to be his elder sister and treats
him like her little brother.
Back home Xiaojun finds his pregnant mother tired, frustrated and angry.
She knows that he is not studying and wasting his life. She got an education
but married a soldier and lost her job. She gives birth to Xiaojun's brother
in a fit of anger. Xiaojun then learns that her pregnancy was caused by his
puncturing the condom used by his father.
His friends summon him again for a battle of the gangs. This time the two gangs
number 100 members each and are armed with bricks, sticks and knives.
Luckily at the last moment a truce is signed and
the two gangs celebrate the truce instead of fighting each other: they drink
beer under a giant portrait of Mao.
Mi Lan obtains a sick leave (and refuses to explain for what to Xiaojun) so
she and Xiaojun can spend more time together.
Summer holidays give the kids even more spare time (although we have seen
precious little school so far).
Xiaojun invites Mi Lan to meet his friends. She arrives late because his
map of the meeting point confused her.
If the goal was to impress his friends, the meeting backfires on Xiaojun because
he gets jealous that Mi Lan and the handsome Yiku starts a conversation.
To impress her,
"Monkey" (Xiaojun's nickname)
climbs to the top of a smokstack and then dives inside.
Ashes and the upwards draft save his life but he comes out covered in black ash.
It's a miracle that he doesn't have a single scratch.
Xiaojun refuses to talk to Mi Lan out of jealousy. She comes to visit him
at home. Just then his father returns home unexpected. Xiaojun tells him that
Mi Lan is one of his teachers but the father reads the lie in his face and slaps
him. He is leaving on a mission to Inner Mongolia for a month.
Those few minutes are the only encounter between father and son in a long time.
One evening the neighborhood is supposed to be watching
Mikhail Romm's propaganda film "Lenin in 1918" in the main square.
Xiaojun finds his friends in a packed theater that is showing instead
a Western film featuring a half-naked blond woman. (Very few people are watching
the propaganda film outside).
Someone finds out that minors are in the theater and they are chased out and
climb a roof to watch sunset.
One day Xiaojun rides Mi Lan on his bicycle to the field where she works.
He's all happy but at home he finds tragedy: his mother's father has died.
He committed suicide after being tortured as a "capitalist".
On the train to the funeral his mother cries remembering her family's
privileged position and her own education.
When he returns home,
after staring for a while at the idiot of the village, who
is walking around crying,
Xiaojun finds Mi Lan and Yiku have gotten closer.
They all dress like Russian soldiers and dance wildly in a room full of lit candles.
Mi Lan teases Xiaojun at the swimming pool but it's obvious that she is more
attracted to Yiku.
When a gangster-like type, Biaoge, insults Mi Lan, Yiku confronts him and
Xiaojun grabs a knife but Biaoge avoids violence.
Xiaojun learns that Biaoge was Mi Lan's boyfriend.
Xiaojun and Yiku have the same birthday. Xiaojun's jealousy gets out of control
at their birthday dinner. First he insults Mi Lan, then he gets into a bloody
fight with Yiku... but the narrating Xiaojun interrupts the scene and tells us
that it never happened. In fact, he tells us that he's not even sure that
any of this story happened. Maybe he met Mi Lan for the first time when his
friends met her. Maybe Mi Lan was simply Yu Beipei, who has disappeared from
the film. Then the film restarts from the same birthday dinner. This time
Beipei is there.
After the dinner, Xiaojun rides away in the rain and falls into a ditch.
He screams Mi Lan's name like a baby and she comes out of her home and hugs him.
An ever more jealous Xiaojun breaks into Mi Lan's apartment and tries to rape her but she's stronger than him.
His friends abandon him. In a symbolic scene, after he dives in the swimming pool, we see his friends
extending their hands to him but then pushing him down with their feet to drown him.
The narrating Xiaojun informs us that two months later Mi Lan stopped seeing
them and all the kids were drafted in the army.
The film ends. While we see the ending credits, we also see the kids 20 years
later in a limo driving through a very different Beijing, passing by the
same old idiot. (This last scene is shot
in black and white while the rest of the film was in color).
Guizi Laile/ Devils on the Doorstep (2000) is an odd hybrid of farce,
war movie and Orson Welles-ian tragedy.
In the first half the peasants are depicted as naive and even dumb, almost
justifying Japanese racism against them. Then the film focuses on the conscience
of one of them, unable to see a fellow human being as an enemy and therefore
unable to kill him, despite the fact that millions are being killed in the war.
Then the film depicts human folly at its worst, as a massacre is carried out
when the war has already ended, and as the "hero" of the film is executed
in the most humiliating manner by no less than the man whom he saved, by the
man whom he refused to kill.
One is a peasant for whom all people are people. The other one is a soldier,
for whom there are friends and enemies, and rituals that determine who lives
and who dies.
If it weren't made by a Chinese, one would also read a Christian allegory
of sorts, from the annunciation (the delivery of the prisoners by a
mysterious force) to the trial and crucifixion.
In 1945, eight years into
the Japanese occupation of China, a small, isolated, rural Chinese village is
run by a mediocre Japanese captain and his small band of soldiers.
Dasan is having sex with Yu'er, the widow of his dead cousin, when suddenly someone knocks
at the door and points a gun at his face. The stranger orders Dasan to close
his eyes and tells him to keep two packages until New Year's Day, which is
five days away. Dasan is surprised to find two sacks containing each a
The stranger orders him to interrogate them and then disappears.
Dasan immediately informs "old uncle", the de-facto leader of the peasants
as well as his best friend and cousin Er-bozi.
The villagers discover that one prisoner,
is a Chinese translator who works for the Japanese, and this one tells them
that the other one is a Japanese cook. In reality the translator is playing
a trick on both them and the Japanese soldier: the Japanese soldiers, who is
wounded, keeps shouting that he wants to die rather than be taken prisoner, and
that he hates the Chinese and has already killed many, but Hanchen
translates that Hanaya is simply a cook, that he has never killed anyone and is begging for his life.
The villagers are risking their lives by keeping a Japanese prisoner, but they
also risk their lives if they don't follow the instructions of the mysterious
partisan. They lock the prisoners in Dasan's cellar.
When the local captain passes by with his little troop, the Japanese tries
to shout but the noisy of the military band drowns his shouts.
Dasan and Yu'er take care of the duo as if they were guests, misunderstanding
everything about the Japanese because the translator confuses them.
When the Japanese refuses to eat (he wants to starve himself to death),
the translator tells Dasan that the Japanese can only eat flour.
Dasan knows that his aunt, Er-bozi's mom, has flour and offers to return eight
times more if she lends him her flour.
When the Japanese asks the translator to teach him bad Chinese words to insult
his captives, the translator teaches him nice greetings.
Besides feeding them,
Dasan gives them his blankets and Yu'er cures the wound of the Japanese.
Dasan and Er-bozi spend the night of New Year's Eve outside in the cold
waiting for the partisan to return and pick up the two prisoners, but nobody
Dasan is stuck with two prisoners. One day two Japanese soldiers enter the
village, determined to steal a chicken. As they chase a chicken they end up
in Dasan's house. Fearful that they may find the prisoner Hanaya. Yu'er
summons children to make as much noise as possible while Dasan promptly cooks
the chicken for the two arrogant Japanese soldiers.
Six months later,
Er-bozi runs into a captain of the resistance, who tells him that he knows
nothing about the two prisoners and advises him to kill them.
The villagers gather to decide who should do the killing, and
Dasan loses a drawing of lots. Dasan pretends to have killed them.
Yu'er, who got pregnant the night of the mysterious visit, stops talking
to him. Dasan confesses to her that he didn't kill them: he merely hid them
in a ruined section of the Great Wall, and he brings them food every day.
The villagers are furious to learn that they still risk their lives
but Yu'er defends her man, publicly confessing that she got pregnant that night.
"Old uncle" sends Dasan to the town to hire an assassin.
There Dasan witnesses a parade of Japanese soldiers returning from battle,
including a Chinese prisoner and a wounded soldier.
An acquaitance introduces Dasan to a famous swordsman who beheaded many
people for the emperor. Dasan carries him in a sort of wheelbarrow to the
village but the swordsman, after a grotesque kung-fu exhibition, fails to behead the prisoners.
Hanaya misunderstands that his life has been saved by Dasan and now feels
gratitude towards the villagers who fed him, cured his wound and saved his
Hanchen translates (this time correctly) that Hanaya is promising two cars
of grain if they return him to his garrison. The villagers gather again to
discuss the offer. Dasan is desperate to find a solution to a problem that
drags on for six months.
Hanaya convinces them and signs a formal agreement.
Dasan, Er-bozi and others escort Hanaya and Hanchen to the
Japanese fort run by captain Sakatsuka.
Hanaya walks in shouting that he's alive.
Everybody is surprised because they long thought him dead.
Dasan's mule ruins the atmosphere because it mounts a Japanese horse.
Sakatsuka explains to Hanaya that his hometown considers him a hero fallen
for the motherland. And, in general, it is shameful for a Japanese soldier
to be taken prisoner. He beats up Hanaya. Dasan manages to deliver the
signed agreement and the captain surprisingly decides to honor it.
In fact, the captain decides to pay more than two carts of grain: he offers
six because he wants to pay for six months of food.
The Japanese soldiers escort the six carts and Dasan to the village
and then organize a banquet to celebrate the event.
Dasan leaves the group to pick up his woman Yu'er who is at her mother's place
and therefore misses the party.
Japanese soldiers and Chinese peasants have a good time, eating and singing
and trading jokes. Old Uncle sits next to
Sakatsuka and everything seems to be having a good time... until Hanaya shows
that he learned some Chinese words.
Sakatsuka then accuses him of being a traitor and orders his men to shoot him
dead. Nobody moves and Sakatsuka forgives him.
Sakatsuka then gives a moving speech in which he pledges to retire to a
village like this one when the time comes.
However, he gets suspicious when he notices that Dasan is still missing.
He suspects that Dasan is a leader of the partisans and that he fell in
a trap. He suddenly orders to massacre the Chinese: Old Uncle is the first
one to be killed, followed by Yu'er's little son.
Sakatsuka orders his soldier to save nobody and to burn down the village
while the military band keeps playing.
Dasan and Yu'er see the flames from far away.
Hanaya is about to kill himself but
Sakatsuka stops him with a shocking news: Japan has surrendered, the war is over.
Sakatsuka ordered a massacre even knowing that the war was over.
We hear the recording of the emperor's message to the nation after the two
Some time later a Chinese governor enters the town, escorted by US troops.
Sakatsuka and his soldiers are prisoners of war.
The governor orders the public execution of Hanchen as a collaborator.
Hanchen dies laughing.
Dasan is selling cigarettes outside the prison camp. He kills two Japanese
prisoners who venture outside to buy his cigarettes and then barges inside
brandishing an axe and kills as many prisoners has he can.
The Chinese soldiers finally stop him. The Chinese governor accuses him of
treason because Japan and China are now at peace.
He is sentenced to be killed and the Chinese governor grants the Japanese
commander, Sakatsuka, the honor to kill Dasan.
A pig that runs into the courtyard ruins the tragic atmosphere.
Sakatsuka demands a sword and then hands it to Hanaya and orders Hanaya
to behead Dasan.
Hanaya hesitates only a few seconds and then carries out the beheading.
We see the scene from the viewpoint of Dasan's head that rolls nine times.
Then we see the head blinking three times. It's the way the master
swordsman described a perfect beheading.
The Sun Also Rises (2007)
By far his greatest commercial success,
Rang Zi Dan/ Let the Bullets Fly (2010) is a comic Chinese western that
continuously blurs the border between reality and fiction.
In South China in 1919 (when China is largely an anarchic place) a bandits
attack a train pulled by many horses. The train capsizes and ends in a pond.
There are only two survivors, and we know that one is the new governor, Ma,
and the other one is his wife. But the bandits don't know.
Ma pretends to be his counsellor Tang. The woman doesn't deny being the
governor's wife and, when the bandits notice that she's not upset by the
governor's death, she replies that she's been widowed several times.
Ma cannot offer money to the bandits because he has none. But he comes up
with an intriguing deal: he can vouch to the provincial capital that the chief
of the bandits is the governor, and then the bandits will be able to plunder.
The chief introduces himself as the legendary and feared "Poxy" Zhang,
and introduces his adopted son, aka Number Six. All the bandits have nicknames
that are numbers.
Ma tells Poxy that the wealthiest man in the provincial capital is Huang,
a man who got rich with all sorts of illegal activities like selling opium.
The counsellor therefore escorts Proxy and his gang into town and announces
that the new governor has arrived.
Huang is watching them with a telescope from his fortress.
He is just then training a body double and does not waste time welcoming the
new governor in person.
Poxy settles in the governor's mansion. Ma is disappointed to find out that
the town is very poor: only Huang has money. Poxy has no doubt that Huang is
the one to rob.
Poxy announces that he is bringing justice to the town. His first sentence is
to condemn one of Huang's goons for a small issue. That's enough to be considered by Huang a personal affront. Huang's men then frame Poxy's adopted son
for stealing a bowl of noodles
until the boy, to prove his innocence, stabs himself and opens his own stomach
to show what he ate. Number Six dies and Poxy swears revenge.
Nonetheless, Huang invites the governor to dinner. Huang presents a plan to the
governor to rob the bandit Poxy (not knowing that the governor in front of him
is indeed Poxy). He offers his concubine and two diamonds to the governor,
which the counsellor gladly accepts. He also pretends to kill three of his own men while they amicably chat as a pledge of friendship.
Poxy the fake governor accepts Huang's plan to find and rob Poxy the bandit
and asks Huang for the money to fund the expedition.
The counsellor (which, unknown to Poxy and everybody else, is the real governor) is jealous that his wife slept with the fake governor Poxy.
Huang immediately breaks his promise and sends his men to assassinate the
governor but they only assassinate his wife, i.e. the counsellor's wife (the real governor's wife): Tang cries bitter tears and therefore betrays his real
identity as the governor Ma.
Poxy the fake governor organizes a funeral for the dead woman who is supposed
to be his wife and pretends to be heartbroken.
It's a trap: his men kidnap Huang and the heads of two wealthy families, and
then ask for ransom. The two wealthy families pay, but nobody pays for Huang
because they kidnapped the double, not the real Huang.
Poxy decides to give the money to the poor. His men are therefore sent around
town, masked with masks that have as many holes as their number names, to donate money to random families. His Number Three gives it to the
concubine Flora, with whom he's falling in love. Flora sees their faces
and Ma/Tang demands that she be killed but Poxy saves her life.
Huang guesses that it is the governor who is giving away the money to the
poor and tries to ruin his reputation by sending his men wearing the same
masks that Poxy's men wear to rape a woman in front of her husband and to steal
the money gifted the day before.
Poxy suspects that Ma/Tang could be betraying them but finds him cornered by
a woman who claims that he was seduced by him and has had a son from him,
who is now 8-year-old but looks like an adult. As she demands money, Poxy
gives her the two diamonds and sends her away.
A spy finds out that the governor always wears the mask number 9. Therefore
Huang orders his men to attack the governor's gang and to kill number 9.
But another spy alerts Poxy that Huang's men will be wearing mask number 4
and so all of Poxy's men wear mask number 4. The shootout is a mess and six
of Huang's men are killed.
The fake governor confronts Huang at his residence, demanding the money for
hunting Poxy (himself). Huang pays.
Poxy is more determined than ever to avenge Number Six and Ma's wife.
Huang is planning again to kill the (fake) governor through an elaborate
trap that will conclude with the detonation of a US landmine of 1910.
Huang's concubine Flora shows up at the governor's mansion with two guns,
threatening to kill the (fake) governor and herself if she is not accepted
as a bandit.
Poxy immediately thinks of a mission for her: identify the real Huang. She
confirms that the Huang held captive by them is the double, not the real one.
Meanwhile Huang is delivered a picture of the real governor and realizes
that counsellor Tang is Ma, and the governor is an impostor. Ma, however,
defends Poxy claiming that he (Ma) always employs fake governors, and claims
that Poxy is his nephew. Huang then reveals that his ambition is to become
governor. First he needs to capture the legendary bandit Poxy, and Huang has
a plan that requires the fake governor and fake Ma nephew (Poxy) to play... Poxy.
Huang's plan in reality is to blow up this fake Poxy (which he doesn't know is the real one) with the landmine. Huang then introduces Ma as the governor to
an ecstatic crowd of thousands of people. Then they set out for the mission
to capture the bandit Poxy. Ma reveals to Poxy that he was appointed governor
of a different town. The landmine ends up killing Ma. Dying, he confesses
that he lied twice more to Poxy but doesn't have time to tell him the two lies
(we never learn them).
Huang's men attack Poxy's men and Number Two is killed.
Poxy now has another death to avenge: Ma's.
His men try in vain to dissuade him but he decides to return to the town
and lay siege to Huang's fortress, guarded by 400 men. Poxy can only count
on four surviving bandits. They cover the streets of the town with money and
guns, hoping that many people join them: nobody joins them.
Poxy uses a trick: he asks the concubine Flora to bring him the fake Huang
and beheads him in public. Then his men parade him across town. The townfolks
come out and celebrate the death of the tyrant. Poxy then tells them to
attack the fortress, which they do. The real Huang is captured (and considered
the double) and delivered to Poxy (who knows that he is not the double).
Poxy and Huang chat amicably while the townfolks plunder the fortress.
Poxy hands Huang a gun with only one bullet to commit suicide.
Huang commits suicide his own way: he blows up his fortress and dies in the
Poxy looks at the sky and hopes that Number Six, Ma and his wife can see this: his revenge is complete.
Number Three announces that he is leaving the gang to marry Flora.
The other surviving bandits follow him.
Poxy, abandoned by all his men, rides out of town alone.
Gone with the Bullets (2014)
Hidden Man (2018)