A quirky little tale about an exemplary small-town cop and honest but distracted family man whose stability vanishes when his service weapon disappears, “The Missing Gun” marks an uneven but promising debut for Lu Chuan. Driven by a commanding performance from leading national star Jiang Wen and graced by a sharp visual aesthetic and vigorous pacing, this bittersweet story of one man’s quest for redemption incorporates moments of black comedy, murder mystery and paranoid personal odyssey into a fresh, engaging blend that should be granted some access to the arthouse fringe.
Set in the present in a Guizhou Province town, story unfolds in a slightly unreal, fairy-tale atmosphere of classical architecture in peaceful rural surroundings. Awakening the morning after his sister’s wedding in a hung-over haze that seems to permeate much of the action, local cop Ma Shan (Jiang) is alarmed to find his holster empty. Plagued by visions of the missing revolver and flashes from his uncertain memory, Ma begins turning first his home then the entire town upside down to find the gun and avoid official repercussions.
Given that gun ownership is outlawed under Communist rule, the loss of a loaded weapon by a police officer is considered a crime. Ma’s detective skills are challenged by the fact that he and seemingly everyone else in town was too drunk to remember what transpired during and after the wedding.
Suspecting everyone from his 8-year-old son (Wang Xiaofan) to Zhou Xiaogang (Shi Liang), a well-heeled businessman with a sideline in illegal liquor, Ma enlists the help of two army buddies (Liu Xiaoning, Pan Yong) in unraveling the mystery, throwing the small community off kilter in the process. Before the gun is relocated, a body turns up — that of Li Xiaomeng (Ning Jing), a former lover of Ma, shacked up with Zhou since her marriage ended.
Ma learns the bullet was intended for the cowardly Zhou. This prompts him to assume Zhou’sidentity in order to coax the killer — and the missing gun — into the open.
While the story functions well enough as a crime mystery, this is no standard-issue genre film. The revelation of the actual culprit is far less important than the tragic lengths to which Ma will go to clear his name and preserve his standing within the community. It’s a goal reflected not just in exchanges with his colleagues and superiors but in appealing moments with his family. Scenes between Ma and his stressed-out schoolteacher wife (Wu Yujuan) are especially good, quietly exposing the bond beneath their imperfect match.
Wu creates a troubled, sympathetic character, and Ning is amusing as the flaky, flirty beauty who meets a thankless end. But the film is very much powered by the dynamic presence of Jiang (“Red Sorghum,” “Keep Cool,” “Devils on the Doorstep”), charging through Ma’s chaotic mission with wounded dignity, unyielding purposefulness and focus, heedless of the personal cost.
The director’s grasp of plot and character presentation is erratic, but he displays a confident visual sense. Lu ably uses fast- and slow-motion and eye-catching fantasy and memory devices while creating textured contrasts between a loose, handheld shooting style, unconventional p.o.v. shots and a more poised compositional approach. Story bounces along with a brisk, fluid rhythm, efficiently backed by a modern Western-style score.