Finger On The Trigger: The Bullet Vanishes movie review
The Bullet Vanishes, which opens this week in San Francisco and other select North American cities, is China Lion’s latest almost-day-and-date release of new Chinese-language product. Part CSI, part Guy Madden Sherlock Holmes, and part Detective Dee, the movie is a classy production set in 1930s China with a lot of really nice vintage pistols. More importantly, it’s a chance to see the great Lau Ching-Wan in action, as he meticulously creates yet another intriguing character.
The story involves the investigation of a series of murders at a Shanghai bullet factory. After one of the factory workers kills herself under suspicious circumstances, several of her co-workers follow in like fashion, dying of gunshot wounds with seemingly spectral bullets. Police detectives Song (LCW) and Guo (Nicholas Tse) are assigned to figure out what’s going on, but as they delve deeper into the case they encounter more and more contradictions.
As a representative of the big-budget cinematic product currently coming out of China, the movie looks great, with its wool-and-tweed period wardrobe, thirties-throwback art direction, and expensive-looking sepia-toned cinematography. Director Lo Chi-leung keeps things moving along despite several abrupt U-turns in the plot, the action choreography includes several nice shootouts, and the movie has fun gently ribbing the primitive forensics of the 1930s detectives. The general air of respectability, however, means that the movie lacks the OTT insanity that drove so many great Hong Kong films—as a China/HK co-production the movie is more genteel than balls-to-the-wall. There’s also a very slight critique of capitalism in the film’s rendering of the evil boss who ruthlessly oppresses the workers, but Hong Kong director Lo doesn’t let it gets in the way of the real fun.
As noted extensively elsewhere, Lau Ching-Wan played a similar character in the much weirder Johnny To movie, The Mad Detective, and some of that movie’s tropes are repeated here, such as Lau’s detective character re-enacting crime scenes in order to deduce their mechanics (though without the psychic link that made the To film so kicky and fun). The Bullet Vanishes also recalls Peter Chan’s recent flick Wu Xia (or Dragon, depending on when and where you saw it), which featured Takeshi Kaneshiro as a hyper-observant detective who could suss out crimes just by brushing his hands over a tabletop. Here Nic Tse and Lau Ching-Wan split the super-detective duties, with Nic also being an expert shootist who wins several quick-draws with the bad guys.
Director Lo Chi-leung keeps the twisty plot moving along pretty briskly, as the storyline doubles back on itself to reveal more and more complexity, but the narrative manages to remain pretty clear despite the excessive mendacity of the various characters. Lau carries the movie with his sad beagle eyes and off-kilter physicality, while Nic Tse underplays a bit too much. Jing Boran is cute and winsome as the new kid on the block, and various villians snarl and twich appropriately.
The movie also includes an unlikely female doctor character who is anachronistic but fun and who is a good counterbalance to Mini Yang Mi’s insipid fortune-teller/love interest. Yang Mi is not very scintillating and the romantic subplot/detour is annoying and unconvincing. She’s a performer who continues to not impress me (though I haven’t yet seen Painted Skin 2 so I’ll cut her some slack).
The Bullet Vanishes isn’t the deepest movie in the world but all the money seems to be up on the screen and everything hangs together fairly well. All in all there are much worse ways to spend a couple hours than watching Lau Ching-Wan do his thing on screen in an expensive commercial production. If this is a result of the current Chinese film industry boom, then I’m all for it.
Opens Fri. Aug. 31
101 Fourth St. San Francisco, CA 94103
AMC Cupertino 16
10123 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino, CA 95014