The Bullet Vanishes (Xiao shi de zi dan)

China (2012) Dir. Law Chi-Leung 

In 1930s Tiancheng Province of China, a young worker at a bullet making factory named Yan (Xuxu), who is accused of stealing a pack of bullets, is forced into a game of Russian Roulette by her unscrupulous boss Ding (Liu Kai-chi) and dies as a result. The next day a message appears on the factory wall reading “The Phantom Bullet will kill you”.

From then on workers at the factory are murdered by gunshot with the bullet mysteriously absent from the scene of the crime. Eccentric detective Song Donglu (Ching Wan Lau) and “the fastest gun in Tiancheng” police officer Guo Zhui, (Nicholas Tse) are summoned by the local police chief Jin (Wu Gang) to investigate the murders.

If there is one thing Chinese cinema does well it is lavish period dramas while Hong Kong filmmakers are adept hands at crime thrillers and after the success of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame, it was inevitable that someone else would have a go at combining these two genres.

That person was Law Chi-Leung  who has helmed twisting psychological thrillers in the past (such as 2004’s Koma) so this was a nice lateral progression for him. With two reliable leads in Ching Wan Lau and Nicholas Tse on hand, both of whom have had experience working in both genres, the ingredients for a enjoyable crime romp are very much in place, even if the film has a slight Sherlock Holmes (Guy Richie version) vibe about it.

The film gets off to a slightly slow start, opening with Yan’s death before introducing us to out two super sleuths. Song is hanging himself to see the effects the noose has on the neck while Guo is chasing and putting a bullet into a potential prostitute murderer. Song is initially recruited to investigate and bring down the corruption in Tiancheng but the latest murder at the bullet factory takes precedent.

Working together Song and Guo, along with junior assistant Xiaowu (Jing Boran), find themselves embroiled in a spiralling mystery of a deathly curse, the progress of modern gun technology and of course the tyrannical Ding and his reign of terror which extends beyond the factory to the office of police chief Jin.

This is not a cosy two man team investigation akin to what Holmes and Watson enjoy – Song and Guo are both masters in their respective fields with their own methods of solving a crime. They are not exactly rivals per se nor do they tread on each other’s toes but they never get close enough to establish a friendly rapport to suggest a potential BFF bond between them. Song is the more clinical and practical in his approach while Guo is the more instinctive and reactionary of the two.

Xiaowu is the middle man and ostensibly the comic relief but is not aversed to getting involved in the action where necessary. To add some glamour to the screen, local fortune teller Little Lark (Mini Yang) and coroner Li Jia (Yumiko Cheng) offer suitable assist to the case, the former investing a lot more than her forecasting skills to Guo.

A seemingly innocuous recurring thread features Song’s infatuation with a woman convicted of her husband’s murder Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan). Her story is told in a silent movie style flashback which appears to trivialise the subject of murder but instead is a disarming way to introduce us to a unique and imaginative criminal mind who offers Song a few tenuous but helpful clues along the way.

The titular vanishing bullets provides us with an intriguing mystery to keep our detectives busy which doubles as a practical one with the conceit of how Ding pulls off his “Heaven’s Will” challenge, in which this game of Russian Roulette is a sign of guilt/innocence as determined by the heavens, which Ding always wins.

The technological breakdown of the various theories is hugely inventive and all some hugely plausible even for the 1930’s. This ingenuity adds a weight of intelligence to what could have been a pedestrian story, as do the numerous twists and turns to keep the audience guessing as much as the detectives themselves, keeping them coming until the very end.

The other Holmes comparison that is palpable is the extravagant action scenes present. Granted none are as wildly OTT as in Ritchie’s film, but Law is not shy in using modern filming techniques and effects to make them look spectacular. Thankfully he has resisted the temptation to go too mad with the effects to avoid looking anachronistic against the acutely observed visual recreation of the 30’s period, but the danger of straying too far into this area is always present.

With the use of muted colour palettes to reflect the mood of key scenes, Law has made a huge effort to achieve maximum authenticity in both the visuals and the film’s narrative and storytelling. There is a noticeable dip in the beginning of the third act and the wrap up comes at a slightly rushed pace to take everything in, making the steady pace of the build up feel somewhat protracted.

With everyone keeping their cards close to their chests, character development isn’t forthcoming but this doesn’t render any of the characters as one dimensional, but Law is blessed with a superb two leads and equally enthusiastic and able support cast, so the film remains engaging throughout.

In The Bullet Vanishes, Law delivers a credible mystery thriller in which the positives far outweigh the negatives, that is rich in its multilayered plot and creative details.