[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Filmmakers have been able to do a lot with the Second Sino-Japanese War. The brutal WWII conflict between China and Japan has resulted in serious dramas like Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of Warand Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death as well as exploitation films like Men Behind the Sun. With Guns N’ Roses, you get a lot of madcap genre-bending courtesy of writer/director Ning Hao. It’s a wartime comedy romp, a caper romance, a slapstick melodrama, a tale of heroes and fools and scoundrel-heroes.
There is such a crackling energy to the film, just barely contained, and it may be epitomized by one of the movie’s music cues: Aram Khachaturian’s “The Sabre Dance.” Guns N’ Roses is like watching people spin plates.
Guns N’ Roses (Huang Jin Da Jie An | 黄金大劫案)
Director: Ning Hao
There’s a classic character trajectory at the heart of Guns N’ Roses: the fool becoming a hero. It’s as reliable as the upward and downward loop of a V2 bomb. Our fool is Xiao Dunbei, played by Lei Jia Yin, a conman trying to get by during desperate times. Manchuria has been occupied by the Imperial Japanese, and people without means are worse off than ever. Everyone’s grifting everyone else just to survive — priests take from parishioners, sisters hustle family for rent, beggars bilk beggars, Chinese cops are working for the occupying forces. It’s like the war has hardened all the hearts in the city, and few feel responsible for anyone but themselves.
Xiao lives with his dad (I think the actor is Tao Guo) in the sewers. His father claims to have been a hero in the first Sino-Japanese conflict, a hard-hitting kung-fu fighting man who was hell to the Japanese, both with his fists and his expertly wielded throwing darts. Now he’s a smelly eccentric obsessed with the past (and the possibility of a noodle soup dinner), and his skills are rusty at best. The plot is set in motion when Xiao winds up with the shoes of a tortured Chinese revolutionary. In the heel is a message about a shipment of Japanese gold arriving at an extremely secure bank. By accident, Xiao is part of a cause he doesn’t care about.
That’s the first set of plates that Ning Hao gets spinning. Then in comes the core group of revolutionaries: a band of Chinese actors and filmmakers. Their leader is a big-time movie actress Die Fang (Hong Tao), though it’s Sister Fang to her fellow freedom fighters. Then there’s the issue of class consciousness and romance and a burgeoning sense of national responsibility. Xiao continually resists the call for heroism and romance, so part of the drama amid all the madcap fun is seeing what will push Xiao to accept his calling (and how he will reject it).
When you’re watching people spin plates, part of the interest comes from seeing how many plates can be set in motion and how long the spinning can be sustained. It’s like Evel Knivel and NASCAR: the allure is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Guns N’ Roses is sustained by a similar allure as well as its moments of broad comedy, reminiscent of Stephen Chow and other Cantonese comedies. (Maybe an interesting point of comparison since it’s a Mainland China film.) Will the plot to get the Japanese gold be thwarted? How will they get what they want? What complications will make that more difficult? How will they screw up (because you know they’ll botch); and how will they work around the screw up?
When trying to learn more about the gold shipment, the revolutionaries attend a big party thrown by the bank president. Xiao brings his dad along so he can eat well for once; Xiao can’t help himself when he sees real silver silverware; a woman accuses him of theft; and all the while the heroes are doing their part while the fools make things difficult. Intrigue after intrigue, complication after complication, plate after plate. And then, a solution. But there at the party is another plot set in motion: Xiao meets the daughter of the bank president, Xixi (Yuanyuan Cheng), and getting in good with her might help him patch up problems with the revolutionaries.
You can also credit the film’s tension to the primary Japanese baddie in the film, Toriyama, played by Keiichi Yamasaki. He strolls into scenes with a cool kind of menace, part Udo Kier and part Christoph Waltz. In an especially harrowing attempt to suss out revolutionaries/spies, Toriyama forces Chinese citizens to walk blindfolded toward another person’s back. His reasoning is that innocent people will walk straight; those who walk crooked get a bullet in the head.
In some ways, the film is like a Chinese counterpart to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, though Guns N’ Roses goes in its own histrionic direction with the idea of actors and films and the war effort. The contrast in a nutshell: Inglorious Bastards gives you the David Bowie song from Cat People; Guns N’ Roses brings “The Sabre Dance.” In a lot of ways, the latter rocks way harder, and that’s especially true of the finale.
What’s most fun about Guns N’ Roses is how it manages to work with all of its fluctuations in tone. You go from a zany moment of slapstick one moment to a bit of heroic bloodshed the next; from insincere romance to genuine feelings of love; from a life-and-death air raid to a moment right out of a Daffy Duck cartoon. It’s all high and low, consistency of tone be damned, because when you get madcap, inconsistency of tone is secondary to consistency of vision.
There’s a sense that Ning Hao is throwing everything he’s got on screen and making it all fit together somehow. It’s a heroic feat, maybe a foolish one as well, but Guns N’ Roses is an entertaining work of daring, one made even better by the fact it actually works.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: Guns N’ Roses is a lot of fun. The characters are compelling, but their arcs are much moreso. Seeing everyone’s motivation and how far that motivation will take them is at times awe-inspiring and at others kind of depressing. This is a World War II story that is completely unlike any WWII story you’ve seen. Unless you’re Chinese, in which case there are probably other movies like this one. But I haven’t, so I was kind of shocked to find out when exactly the film took place. Nonetheless, the film is hurt by some poor CGI, but it makes up for it with a whole lot of heart and the most ingenious and beautifully set fake war scene that has ever happened ever. I’m not actually sure what competition there is in that space, but Guns N’ Roses wins hands down. 83 – Great
[Guns N’ Roses will be screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater Saturday, July 7th at 9:00 PM and Tuesday, July 10th at 1:30 PM]