NYAFF 2012 Review: In GUNS N' ROSES, Ning Hao Plays It Safe

James Marsh, Asian Editor
With its North American premiere happening this Saturday, July 7th at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, we now revisit James Marsh's review of Guns n' Roses from May.

Wunderkind and enfant terrible are both labels that have been regularly applied to mainland director Ning Hao, who first began turning heads on the festival circuit with his debut Mongolian Ping Pong back in 2005. It was his sophomore feature, however, that really caused a splash. Crazy Stone was a surprise hit at the Chinese box office - an independent low budget caper movie with no stars and a labyrinthine plot of small time crooks and part time security guards all with their eyes on a valuable jewel. Ning's followed this success with Crazy Racer, which took the same model even further with frenetic pacing, madcap humour, multiple characters and half a dozen different story strands that had critics drawing comparisons to Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately his next film, No Man's Land (also known as Western Sunshine), which follows the misadventures of a city lawyer in Xinjiang province, fell foul of the Chinese censors and has yet to see the light of day.

Two years later we have the glossy period caper Guns And Roses. Set in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation, we are introduced to Xiao Dongbei (newcomer Lei Jia Yin), a fast-talking hustler who eeks out a living on the streets pulling petty cons, cheating anyone out of whatever he can (including starving children) and who will claim allegiance to whichever side currently has him cornered. When Xiao winds up in jail for the umpteenth time and sharing a cell with a real revolutionary he soon finds himself in possession of highly valuable information regarding an incoming shipment of gold. Needless to say he soon has a gang of rebels on his tail looking to squeeze the information from him.

Xiao sees this as his big chance to score big and insists on joining the gang, led by the glamorous screen actress Sister Fang (Tao Hong). They concede only for matters to worsen when Xiao falls for Xixi (Cheng Yuanyuan), the beautiful daughter of their intended mark, bank president Gu. The stage is therefore set for a madcap comedy of errors the likes of which Ning has delighted us with in the past. However, as the film proceeds and the various interested parties plot their intended heists upon the bank's impenetrable vault to lay their hands on the vast quanitities of gold bullion within, there is no escaping the overriding fact that the film is frankly rather uninteresting. 

That is not to say that Guns And Roses is bad. The performances are all uniformly strong, with Lei Jia Yin making a particularly likable antihero and standing out despite being surrounded by a gaggle of Ning regulars including Guo Tao, Fan Wei, Liu Hua and even a cameo appearance from Huang Bo. The film is just wholly unremarkable, only displaying the breakneck pacing and anarchic wit of the director's previous films on perhaps a half dozen occasions. There is one great joke early on involving a lifesize crucifix that gets a huge laugh and gives false hope that the film might be finding its feet. However it proves a solitary flash in the pan in a film that seems intent on satisfying a large mainstream audience without rustling any feathers or causing much of a scandal. 

It was with great surprise, therefore, that after enduring 90 minutes of Ning Hao basically playing it broad and safe for a large holiday crowd, the film culminates in such a tragic and downbeat ending. It is understood that in modern Chinese Cinema, criminals must never prosper and the Japanese occupying forces must always be personified as brutal savages, but Guns And Roses ends on a real downer that can hardly be justified by the preceding hour and a half. It is certainly effective, and may well leave viewers teary-eyed at the fate of some of its major players, but does nothing to ease the mood of disappointment that will have already filled the hearts of Ning Hao fans in the audience. 

Guns And Roses is no travesty by any stretch, and in all fairness proves to be a perfectly respectable way to spend two hours of your time. However, there is nothing about it - save for the introduction of leading man Lei Jia Yin - that raises the film out of mediocrity and into essential viewing territory, which is where one always hopes (and up until now has found) the films of Ning Hao to most comfortably reside. One can only hope that if this film was indeed to placate those unhappy with how No Man's Land came out, that penance has now been paid and he can go back to being daring, exciting and a little bit crazy.

As part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival Guns n' Roses screens this Saturday, July 7 (9pm) and Tuesday, July 10 at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center. Click here for more info and tickets.
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