A deadly game twists and turns
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, August 31, 2012
Among the staples of the murder-mystery genre are killings accomplished with no evident weapon and crimes that occur in rooms locked by the victim from the inside. “The Bullet Vanishes” includes both varieties of “impossible” crimes, a plot surfeit that should arouse the suspicion of any experienced movie sleuth. This China/Hong Kong co-production is lively, stylish and well-performed; it just doesn’t know when to stop.
Set in the 1930s, the story opens at a munitions factory. Accused of theft, a young female worker shoots herself in the head in an apparent suicide. In fact, the death is part of a game of “Heaven’s will” (that is, Russian roulette) initiated by her villainous employer (Liu Kai-Chi). This potentially lethal pastime is one of the movie’s motifs.
Soon after the incident, the boss’s henchmen begin dying. They’ve been shot, yet no bullets are found in or near their bodies. The case attracts two detectives with different styles. Local police officer Guo (Nicholas Tse) is handsome and dashing, and he’s reputed to be the fastest shot in town. The newly arrived Song (Lau Ching-Wan) is more cerebral and eccentric. He’s introduced while trying to hang himself, but not in earnest; he’s just taking a murder investigation to dangerous extremes.
The factory workers fear that the dead woman is responsible for the slayings, but neither Guo nor Song believes in ghosts. The detectives are entirely scientific and assisted by a skilled forensic pathologist -- a woman, no less. (Her presence is one clue that “The Bullet Vanishes” was inspired more by recent American medical-examiner dramas than by Chinese history.) Also of help is Little Lark (Yang Mi), who runs a fortune-telling scam using trained birds. She becomes Guo’s girlfriend, while Song’s muse is an imprisoned murderer (Jiang Yiyan) who provides tips on homicidal technique and motivation.
Shot mostly on sets, the movie has a charmingly stagey look and an artfully retro color scheme. Exuberant camera movements and high- and low-angle shots flaunt director Law Chi-Leung’s artifice. So do the flashbacks, shot in black and white but always containing some element -- a bloodstain, a crucial clue -- in color.
Tse, a North American-raised matinee idol, and Lau, a veteran character actor with a hangdog face, make a fine team. They’re great fun together, even when the overplotted script insists on one twist too many. A savvy detective seeks the most elegant solution, but “The Bullet Vanishes” prefers the hopelessly tangled and laughably implausible.
Contains violence, autopsies and mild sexuality. In Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.