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“Crazy Stone” and “Crazy Racer” director Ning Hao returns with “Guns and Roses”, his biggest-budgeted and most ambitious film to date. Unsurprisingly, the film sees the Chinese sixth generation helmer sticking to the kind of comedy caper that he made his name with, though this time casting his net a little wider by including explosive action set pieces, along with a little romance and wartime intrigue. The film also sees him working again with his usual players, including Guo Tao, Liu Hua, and Huang Bo, who are joined by Fan Wei (“Beginning of the Great Revival”), Tao Hong (“You Deserve to be Single”) and Cheng Yuanyuan, with newcomer Lei Jiayin in the lead role. The film proved even more popular than Ning’s previous outings, emerging as one of the highest grossing hits during the 2012 Labour Day holiday season in China.
The film is set in the 1930s in north-eastern Manchurian China, with Lei Jiayin as lowly street hustler Xiao Dongbei, who becomes involved with a group of anti-Japanese revolutionaries after accidentally coming across their plans to rob a bank and prevent a massive arms deal. Led by famed actress Lady Fang (Tao Hong), the revolutionaries are all in the film industry, using this as a cover for their scheme, though matters become more complicated when Lei Jiayin also gets involved with the bank owner’s daughter Xixi (Cheng Yuanyuan).
“Guns and Roses” is very clearly a Ning Hao film right from its quirky opening scenes, showing the same cinematic juggling of multiple characters and subplots, tied together with a manic and surprisingly wicked sense of humour. There’s certainly a great deal going on, though Ning again shows himself a very adept storyteller, managing to keep the viewer engaged and amused despite the always present threat of chaos. The frantically paced film is very funny throughout, with some excellently daft creativity, and Ning makes great use of the sizable budget, working in some effective large scale sequences, the bombastic action scenes and CGI never feeling out of place.
Although his usual mob of charismatic collaborators take more of a back seat this time around, Lei Jiayin proves a likeable rascal of an anti-hero, and his relationship with Cheng Yuanyuan fits well enough. During its initial stages at least, the film shows a playful moral ambivalence, driven primarily by self-interest and survival instinct, and as a result is unpredictable and offbeat in lively and entertaining fashion.
At the same time however, there’s no denying that Ning has tempered his approach somewhat, and the film does feel toned down and less slyly critical when compared to his earlier films – no doubt as a result of his having fallen foul of the censors with his last film, “Western Sunshine”, which was refused a pass for release and has yet to emerge. As well as feeling safer, the film also takes a very marked and sudden dive into nationalism during its last act, with a focus on revolution and sacrifice, and though this doesn’t feel quite as propagandist as in other recent Chinese releases, it does grate somewhat, not to mention making for an unexpectedly downbeat and depressing ending.
Still, even when slightly subdued, Ning Hao is one of China’s most talented and imaginative film makers, and “Guns and Roses” is a very enjoyable and well-made piece of tomfoolery. Although it lacks the rebellious spark and unfettered imagination of “Crazy Stone” and “Crazy Racer”, there’s a great deal of fun to be had, and the film is definitely head and shoulders above the majority of Chinese comedies or commercial blockbusters.
Hao Ning (director) / Xing Aina, Wang Hongwei, He Ruirui, Ruan Shisheng, Zheng Xiaoyang, Xiaojun Yue (screenplay)
CAST: Yuanyuan Cheng … Gu Xixi
Wei Fan … Priest
Tao Guo … Crazy Dad
Bo Huang … Agent
Jiayin Lei … Xiao Dongbei
Hua Liu … Wu Ge
Chun Sun … Bai Murong
Hong Tao … Fang Die
Keiichi Yamasaki … Toriyama