The poster seemed familiar, and the trailer suggested something along the lines of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, only for Victorian London to be replaced by a city in China, with a production design that rung that equally familiar bell. But thanks to a solid storyline of a whodunnit. The Bullet Vanishes blasted expectations out of the water, and I was surprised by how entertaining, and an engaging affair this turned out to be, with truly first class performance by the ever reliable Lau Ching Wan, and Nicholas Tse who seemed to grow in strength with each role he takes on.
Co-written and directed by Law Chi Leung, whom some of us may know from his debut directorial feature Double Tap, The Bullet Vanishes may probably be his most polished and accomplished film to date, with remarkable production values blending beautiful sets and costumes, with CG to recreate the Old Tiancheng, which is terrorized by what could be the double whammy of corruption in high office, and a phantom linked with the city's superstition, with inexplicable messages inked in blood popping up, and mysterious deaths occurring to workers in a sweatshop operation of a ammunitions factory. This calls for not one but two detective sleuths to step in, and plough through threats, coercion and obstruction to justice as they engage in rudimentary science and crime scene investigation to get to the truth.
Both Law and co-writer Yeung Sin Ling managed to craft a top notch detective whodunnit that's heightened with mystery, chock full of supporting characters, and blended with set action pieces that made The Bullet Vanishes possess a little something for everyone. The title, which may sound chunky in both English and Mandarin, explains the bulk of the mystery, because bodies are turning up, but each without the remnants of a round that should usually be found within the victims, or in the surroundings where they turn up. A little bit of CSI through autopsies, hypotheses that requiring tests, and an all round good use of science, will make you work as hard as the detectives in trying to stay a step ahead of them.
Lau's Song Donglu is yet another cop character that the veteran actor has tackled in his career, and is as unorthodox as can be, preferring to be his own little guinea pig to run experiments on, in order to study forensics, and his methods also involve getting into the criminal psyche, engaging with inmates, and through conversation, learn techniques, and is able to appeal for those innocent to be let off the hook. To varying levels of success of course, but these efforts don't go unnoticed, and he gets sent to Tiancheng to deploy his skills. Song's introduction with detective Guo Zhui (Tse) didn't turn up all too chummy at first, but both men quickly share a common ground in investigations, with Guo having a keen eye and observation skills, which serve him well since he's arguably one of the fastest marksmen in town. Just in case you'd think one of them takes on the Sherlock mold, and the other as Watson, well, think again, as there's no clear cut division between the two in such fashion, with both main leads being quite apt for the job, except for Song's preference to not be packing a pistol.
And you can sense that the writers got into a love affair with the leading characters, taking time off the main event to tell some of their back stories, or letting romance get in the way as well, such as Guo's relationship with a young fortune teller played by Yang Mi, and Song's exchange of letters with an inmate (Karena Lam) which form the narrative background for the movie, and become the moral compass as well by the time the story runs into its thrilling double climax. It examines the nature and plausibility of the "perfect crime", while also deals with the perennial nature versus nurture issue on how criminals get made, since it is believed that no human being is born evil, and some may turn to crime or twisted justice as a means out of an unbearable environment they live in.
Other supporting actors who stand out include Liu Kai Chi, who is running a risk of getting stereotyped with his devilish, over the top portrayal as the unscrupulous factory owner, while Boran Jing's role as a rookie cop almost makes it a triumvirate for the heroes if not for his character's lack of experience in the field, and becomes the slight comic relief in this film that's suspiciously seeped with a social commentary about exploitation and corruption in pursuit of monetary goals, and how the corrupt always make strange bedfellows. Nicholas Tse and Yang Mi may sizzle on screen for their love scene, but all eyes are definitely on Tse-Lau as their excellent chemistry par none here will probably pave the way for more future films together, I hope.
If there's a little bit of a letdown, it's that the censors here decided to snip off those little impact moments where bullets make contact with the skull. Save for the scene near the beginning of the film that allowed one to sink into the moment of an unnecessary, cruel killing that set the stage, the rest got unceremoniously truncated, which is a pity since there's a subplot involving the fastest and most accurate gun in town put into the story for a reason. It's too bad that we only get to see the outcome, and not that I'm bloodlusting, but I'm never for butchering a movie in this day and age.
Still, The Bullet Vanishes is Chinese Cinema's answer to a detective story that's worthy of some of the best that Western cinema has to offer. There's definite room for a franchise because it's a pity to stop what this film has started, and hopefully it'll be able to find a more unique voice than to look too Holmes-ish. I'm giving this my vote of recommendation, and it's an automatic shoo in for those who have been starved of a good detective flick. It's period setting is great, as the filmmakers are forced to be creative with techniques since they cannot use modern day ones, and this means plenty of innovation on their part in crafting such a tale. Who knows, I may just sneak this in as one of the best of this year as well.