In 1930’s Shanghai there’s a bullet factory where a young girl has been accused of pilfering. The punishment, it seems, is a cruel and very public trial by Russian roulette where fate, the gods or whoever will judge her innocent or guilt with a simple click or a loud bang. Crying out her innocence to the end, the girl pulls the trigger and presumably never actually hears the outcome as her co-workers look on in horror - she must have been guilty though, right? Otherwise she would have been spared by the immortal powers that be.
Following this horrific incident, other deaths start to occur in the factory - the strange thing is, on examining the bodies, no trace of a bullet can be found (nor any casings at the scene). Some of the munitions workers start to believe the ghost of the poor girl who died must have returned to take revenge - perhaps she was innocent after all. To solve this intriguing mystery, the police turn to two unorthodox detectives - recently transferred former prison warden Song (Lau Ching-Wan) and maverick cop “fastest gun in town” Guo (Nicholas Tse). Neither of these two are buying a ‘supernatural’ explanation and both are determined to get to the truth, even if they work in very different ways. The solution though is going to be a lot more complicated than anyone could have thought, and will ultimately be painful to hear.
Let’s get this out of this way first - yes, the film owes a significant debt to the recent ‘westernisation’, if you want to put it that way, of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and other Victorian-set crime dramas (e.g. Ripper Street) which seek to present themselves as taking place in a totally lawless world denizened by a criminal population that is somehow both repellent and glamourous. Although The Bullet Vanishes is set in the 1930s, it still has a noticeably ‘Victorian’ sensibility, presenting a world in which rapid industrialisation has brought about mass corruption and a decline in morality. Once again, setting a film in China’s past proves to be a surefire way of getting subtextual criticisms of modern China past the country’s strict censorship regulations.
The murder mystery itself is certainly very intriguing with a series of unpredictable twists and turns. The idea of disappearing bullets might not be a new one, but The Bullet Vanishes manages to find an original solution that is perfectly plausible within its own time setting. Also, the ‘supernatural’ element exists only as an idea and is never seriously entertained as an explanation by any of the investigators - something of a break from the genre norm.
The two detectives seem much more like rivals than partners for much of the film, though an awkward sort of camaraderie does eventually grow up between them. Lau and Tse both give excellent performances, but Tse in particular - who’s often criticised for being a pretty boy trading on family connections - really proves himself with his surprisingly complex Guo. There is though the familiar criticism that the female characters are severely underdeveloped and seem almost like a rushed afterthought. Mini Yang gives a lot to the barely two dimensional Little Lark but can’t disguise the fact that the character only exists as a love interest for Guo, and that in turn a love interest for Guo only exists so that we can have the ‘obligatory’ love scene. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the love scene itself didn’t feel quite so obligator’ - it could easily have been excised and the film would have remained pretty much unchanged; the scene feels as if it exists purely to satisfy a perceived audience need for romance.
There really isn’t much to fault with The Bullet Vanishes overall though. As a slightly cerebral mainstream period thriller it’s certainly very successful. It has an engaging mystery element, strong characters played excellently by the cast and extremely slick, modern direction. In Song they’ve created a very interesting character who’d be very welcome in a sequel or two. His relationship with a female prison inmate, a sort of Irene Adler figure to Song’s cerebral detective, who he’d previously investigated before being transferred was quite an usual idea that would really benefit from further exploration. All in all The Bullet Vanishes is a very impressive and enjoyable period procedural that is truly a cut above its genre origins.
The Bullet Vanishes screened as part of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2013