A cautionary tale of the Internet's potential for misuse receives an offbeat framing.

A cautionary tale of the Internet’s potential for misuse receives an offbeat framing in “Invisible Killer,” which uses a police-procedural format to involving effect. Strongly etched characters and perfs compensate for the almost total absence of physical action as the central mystery unfolds via flashbacks, making this a contender for some fest sidebar play and cable pickup. After his superb 2008 multi-character ensembler, “The End of Year,” this third feature by helmer Wang Jing establishes him as one of China’s most interesting middle-generation talents, though totally unknown offshore.

Wang has been here before, in his 2004 debut feature, “The Last Level,” based on the true story of a guy who died after spending 60 days nonstop in an Internet cafe. However, “Invisible Killer” is stylistically different from both the part-fantasy “Level” and semi-docu-like “Year,” offering immaculately composed visuals sketching small-town life on Yangshan, a small island opposite Ningbo, just south of Shanghai.

The only regular action occurs in a tense opening as the local vice squad, led by hard-assed femme cop Zhang Yao (Feng Bo, good), busts some crooks in a hotel. The cops also arrest a guy leaving an adjoining room, thinking he’s also involved. After some detective work, Zhang and her colleagues (Yu Linda, Gao Xin) identify him as Gao Fei (Yin Xiaotian), who’s been dubbed a “fugitive” on the Internet.

First act crosscuts between those events and two men — online journalist Xu Wei (Xie Yanxiao) and a webbie, Zhou Qiang (Cao Wei) — who are trying to track down Gao’s whereabouts. Turns out the married Gao was accused online of sleeping with cute webster Lin Yan (Tang Yan) by her irate husband, businessman Cheng Tao (Li Yixiang). Pilloried on the ‘Net, Gao had fled to Beijing but is now secretly back in town.

The cops let Gao go. But when Lin’s headless body is swept ashore soon afterwards, Zhang launches a full investigation. The whole story gradually emerges in flashbacks triggered by the interviews.

Co-written by producer Xie Xiaodong (who also co-penned “Year”), the script isn’t directly preachy, beyond the needs of the drama, about Internet misuse; but it also doesn’t build to a solution quite worthy of the tangled lead-up. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for the well-cast actors to sink their teeth into their characters, led by Feng, in her first leading role as the tough cop, Yin as the slyly deceptive Gao and Tang as his lover.

Wang’s beautifully paced helming keeps the atmosphere gently simmering beneath the outwardly quiet, coastal setting, aided by regular collabs Li Ran’s beautifully composed lensing and Feng Wen’s smooth, economic cutting. Other production credits are thoroughly pro, despite the tight 27-day shoot.

Pic is the first mainland Chinese production shot on the ultra-high-res Red-One digital camera system; 35mm transfer is fractionally soft but otherwise looks fine.

Invisible Killer

China

Production

A Massway Film Distribution Co., China Central Newsreel & Documentary Film Studio production. (International sales: Massway, Beijing.) Produced by Xie Xiaodong, Sheng Zhongmin, Xiong Ke, Li Tiansheng. Executive producers, Lu Yungang, Gao Feng. Directed by Wang Jing. Screenplay, Xie Xiaodong, Wu Fang, Wang.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm, widescreen), Li Ran; editor, Feng Wen; music, Qiu Ye; art director, Yao Yibo; sound (Dolby Digital). Reviewed at Shanghai Film Festival (View China), June 18, 2009. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Yin Xiaotian, Feng Bo, Tang Yan, Li Yixiang, Cao Wei, Xie Yanxiao, Yu Linda, Gao Xin, Geng Yi. (Mandarin dialogue)

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