Writer: Elaine EweWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
"Sherlock Holmes" and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows"
The possibilities of the detective thriller have become increasingly limited. Either you have a male-female, a male-male or, kinkier still, a female-female pairing of investigative partners but both have to be at opposing ends of the spectrum of personalities. "Sherlock Holmes" is one of the prime examples of the detective thriller, and already has American (Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes") and British (BBC's "Sherlock") adaptations, not to mention that there is CBS' "Elementary" down the road. It stands to reason that Hong Kong will not be left out of the detective fun, which is why we have Lo Chi-Leung's "The Bullet Vanishes". In his new film, director Lo Chi-Leung has seized upon the chance to throw in every detective cliche and present it in a package of gorgeous production elements. Consequently, "The Bullet Vanishes" is a stylish period thriller set in 1930's Shanghai that falls short of perfect due to a few kinks.
Song Donglun (Lau Ching-Wan) is an astute prison warden who loves to talk to the prisoners during his free time in order to discover what makes them tick, as well as carry out various experiments. He bonds with a female inmate who was sentenced for life for murdering her husband just before he leaves for the city to take up a position as a detective in the police force. Song is saddled with Gao Hui (Nicholas Tse), an earnest detective known for his gunslinging skills and his equally earnest assistant (Jing Boran). Their biggest case comes in the form of vanishing bullets, in which the bullets seem to disappear after being used in a series of murders. Said murders are being committed in a bullet factory led by a venal boss Ding (Liu Kai-Chi) and his vicious henchman who once forced a female worker suspected of stealing to play Russian roulette, with tragic results. Now her ghost may be exacting revenge. Throughout the film, the issue of corruption ever present, and sets the stage for the final revelation.
The first half of the film serves to build up the ensuing cat-and-mouse chase, like introducing the two leads and raising questions that feel a bit too convoluted. There is the apparent suicide of a young girl as she sobs and wails with a gun to her head. Her initial action of shooting herself in the head while declaring her innocence feels a little too dramatic, and makes us wary of the rest to follow. This wariness is deepened when we see Song hanging himself as part of an experiment, which leads him to almost choke to death when his assistant fails to check the sand timer. What we do not know is that Lo Chi-Leung is good at laying the red herrings. Everything in "The Bullet Vanishes" is not as they seem, and as the film chugs into the second half on its 107-minute track, the detective thriller eventually reaches a good rhythm in terms of subtly resolving the questions, such as how the girl ends up shooting herself and how Song managed to escape from his hanging in the early scenes, before finally culminating in a twist that is not warranted, but the fact that Lo Chi-Leung even bothered to put it in bears testament to the quality of the film.
Some actors are only as good as the material they're given. Other actors are good no matter what material they're given. Lau Ching-Wan has always been the latter. Song's eccentricity and naivety that accompanies his intellect provides a refreshing change from the usual snarky and know-it-all attitude that is stereotypical of the cerebral genius. The exchanges between Song and the female inmate that he bonds with are also well done, serving to complement the story as opposed to just pointing out the obvious. Nicholas Tse is also more than just eye-candy here (although the eye candy certainly gets him more points). Again, "The Bullet Vanishes" does not force the duo into the "two heads of the same coin" stereotype that permeates the detective genre like Sherlock Holmes and Watson. On the contrary, we get to see how they complement each other as the brains and brawn or in this case, shooter of the team after their initial wariness of each other, which goes away after Gao sees how observant Song is. The chemistry between Ching-Wan and Tse is absolutely essential, and the fact that the final scene is also agreeably the most heart-breaking part of the film proves this. Lo Chi-Leung makes even a minor character like Gao's assistant seem important even though he is designated as the comic relief. Everyone is weaved a role in the grand design of the detective thriller tapestry, right down to the villains, although if we were to nitpick, the villains are indeed generic. However, it can also be argued that there are just too many sympathetic villains in the course of criminal history that villains who are just out to hide their wrongdoings or after power and wealth seem welcome.
Hong Kong films are almost always commended for their stylish visuals and effects as well as grand settings that to not fulfil those requirements are blasphemy, so it is important to note that these in "The Bullet Vanishes" are done well and more. This is because Lo Chi-Leung is aware of his limits, hence, he limits 1930's Shanghai to us, choosing to focus instead on what he can show. There are no cheap thrills from fast-paced fight and chase scenes to be had here as most of the action is done via bullet exchanges. Although this is regrettable, it does not detract from the main theme of the story, which is the detective thriller and we are also spared from any horrendous computer-generated imagery (CGI).
"The Bullet Vanishes" is not first class filmmaking by any means, nor does it reinvent the detective thriller, but Lo Chi-Leung manages to find a way to make his version feel fresh. Despite the slight indentations in their personalities, Lau Ching-Wan and Nicholas Tse's acting easily convinces us that their investigation is worth following, and Lo Chi-Leung's clever plotting and stylish visuals helps seal the deal. This proves that in detective thrillers can be told time and time again, as long as you have a great cast, a sensible story with a satisfactory end and visual pizazz.Cinema Online, 13 September 2012