One of the most welcome, albeit perplexing, sights in last year’s Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, was the spectacle of Chinese superstar Jiang Wen playing the burly, loyal warrior-sidekick Baze Malbus. Welcome because not only is Jiang one of the most dynamic film performers to emerge over the past several decades, he is also one of China’s greatest filmmakers. Perplexing, because, well, why put an astonishing multi-hyphenate like Jiang Wen in your movie if you’re not going to give him much to do?
Luckily, BAM’s retrospective of Jiang’s work — his five directorial efforts as well as two of his early starring roles for others — can help fill in the gaps. Jiang is that rarest of filmmakers, a popular artist who never stops challenging viewers and experimenting with form. Over the years, he’s parlayed his charisma and success as an actor into a series of directorial passion projects, each seemingly more ambitious than the last. A Jiang picture plays like most others’ long-gestating, career-consuming, once-in-a-lifetime dream efforts. He flirts with folly, to be sure — and as a director, he’s had an uneven fate among viewers, critics, and censors. But my god, to be able to see these complex, vibrant, dazzling films on a big screen…
Don’t take even being able to see this work for granted. Jiang’s second feature, the World War II masterpiece Devils on the Doorstep (2000), got him in trouble when he bypassed Chinese authorities and submitted it to Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix (effectively the fest’s second-place prize). Beijing’s censors objected to, among other things, its treatment of a group of Chinese villagers’ complicated, human response to the arrival of two Japanese prisoners of war in their midst. (They also felt that one minor sex scene would “bring about strong, harmful sensual stimulation to people.”) The result: Jiang got a seven-year ban from filmmaking, and Devils on the Doorstep is still rarely screened in China.
Though it’s shot in lovely black-and-white, deals with a deadly serious subject, and ends in an unspeakable bloodbath, Devils is — dare I say it? — a comedy. Jiang shows the malleability of public opinion and draws humor from the absurdist nature of tradition and the villagers’ communal decision making. But the strange mixture of tones — slapstick set against a gathering sense that something awful might happen at any moment — is a Jiang hallmark. As is the near-constant duplicity: Everybody in Devils on the Doorstep seems to be lying to everyone else, so that the viewer feels unmoored, uncertain of where things are headed and why. In most other directors’ hands, this could lead to confusion; Jiang makes it entrancing. (A similar willingness to challenge narrative authority marks his 1994 directorial debut, In the Heat of the Sun, a Cultural Revolution–set coming-of-age tale in which the mopey teenage protagonist/narrator reveals late in the film that he’s been lying to us about everything all along.)
Dense, diffuse, veering between comedy and tragedy, Devils on the Doorstep is nevertheless Jiang’s most stylistically restrained and consistent effort. His 2007 follow-up, The Sun Also Rises, might be one of the strangest pictures I’ve ever seen.
A four-part epic that tackles the intricate connections between two broken families at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, it has all the trappings of a historical melodrama — with sweeping camera movements, waves of classical music, saturated colors, and surreal bursts of passion. But it’s a tale of loss and madness that seems to go crazy as it proceeds. Even as the fragmented, nonlinear narrative builds toward resolution, a stylistic delirium starts to take over. By the end, the mysterious relationships (which have, once again, been obfuscated by the fact that no character can tell the truth to anyone else) finally make some story sense, even as what we see onscreen becomes more frenetic and absurd. The result is singular: I spent much of The Sun Also Rises convinced it wasn’t working, and was then awash in tears throughout its final, boisterous, brazenly bizarre episode.
In 2011, Jiang scored a historic box office success with Let the Bullets Fly, a film that many view as having inaugurated China’s blockbuster era. (After this, box office records would be broken every few months by newer releases.) It’s no less tonally divergent and genre-bending than The Sun Also Rises (which had failed with critics and audiences), but it also provides some genre thrills, with its nutty action-movie plot, set in the 1920s, about a Robin Hood–like bandit (Jiang) who poses as the new governor of a small village, only to find himself doing battle with the local warlord (played with murderous glee by Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat).
It’s surprising that China’s censors gave this one a pass. The Western-inflected plot and the high body count of Let the Bullets Fly gives cover to Jiang’s portrait of money-grubbing officials and a citizenry easily manipulated by the flashy rituals of politics and the empty promises of demagogues. Then again, it’s hard to read messages when you’re struggling to keep up with basic plot elements. Jiang’s pacing is so fast, his dialogue so sharp, his characters so two-faced, that it’s frequently hard to figure out what’s actually happening. (It doesn’t help that the principals are often pretending to be different people; they also all have doubles, and they sometimes wear masks.) But even if you don’t always catch everything, you can still groove on the kineticism of Jiang’s camera, the lushness of his imagery, the energy of his performers. It’s an action spectacle that verges on the abstract. And, as usual, it’s hilarious.
Jiang’s most recent effort, 2014’s Gone With the Bullets, was meant as a loose sequel to Let the Bullets Fly, even though it didn’t quite replicate that earlier work’s success. (It also got in trouble with censors, who famously halted the film’s premiere to ask for last-minute changes.) But Gone isn’t an action flick. The tale of an ex-nobleman and gangster (played by Jiang himself) who is accused of killing his lover and tries desperately to clear his name when his crime becomes an enduring element of pop culture, it doesn’t ever actually settle into any one genre. Early on, the film parodies gangster flicks, then delivers several eye-popping musical numbers, then becomes a romance, then a police procedural — before doubling back on itself and recasting its earlier scenes via a variety of other media, including a puppet show, a theatrical performance, and a silent movie. The story is based, very loosely, on a real-life murder case in 1920s Shanghai that led to China’s first feature film. But Jiang again uses the setup to explore the unreliability of narrative and the malleability of the audience. The whole is mind-blowingly bizarre, climaxing with one of the weirdest car chases I’ve ever seen. And, as with everything Jiang Wen has directed, I’m still not entirely sure I didn’t just dream it all.
May 3–11, BAM