Taking a page from the careful plotting of Nipponese detective stories, then transplanting the template to a Chinese period setting rife with social resonance, “The Bullet Vanishes” boasts a level of narrative control and artistic finesse rare among such endeavors. Unraveling paranormal murders in a bullet factory, Hong Kong helmer Lo Chi-leung sheds the shock tactics of his best-known horror-thrillers, “Inner Senses” and “Koma,” to pursue an expositional approach, and pulls it off by casting quietly engrossing leads Sean Lau and Nicholas Tse. Robust opening in China followed by a U.S. bow proves demand for cerebral Asian genre fare exists.
The story is set in Tiancheng prefecture during China’s warlord era (around the 1920s). Prison superintendent Song Donglu (Lau), known for his obsessive probing of his inmates’ motives, is summoned by police chief Jin (Wu Gang) to investigate an inexplicable murder in the local bullet factory. The foreman, Chen Qi (Liu Yang), has been hit by a bullet that went through his skull and made a dent in the wall, but it’s nowhere to be found. Soon afterward, mysterious graffiti on the factory grounds warns of the curse of the “phantom bullet.”
Rumors spread about the vengeful ghost of factory girl Yan (Xuxu), who was accused of stealing and coerced into a game of Russian roulette with the boss, Ding (Liu Kai-chi). As predicted, more deaths by gunshot occur, but the bullets are always strangely missing.
Teaming up with sharpshooting detective Guo Zhui (Tse) and Little Lark (Mini Yang), a fortuneteller moonlighting as informant, Song uncovers layers of corruption that rattles the hypothesis he’s dedicated to prove: “There are no born villains, just good people turned bad.”
In a case-within-a-case, Song entertains a discourse on “the perfect crime” with Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan, icily captivating) an inmate convicted of murdering her husband (Chin Ka-lok). Craftily weaving clues into this subplot (with flashbacks shot in stylized black-and-white, like a silent film), Lo makes Fu’s clinical premeditation reinforce the moral ambiguity running through the film.
Transcribing such classic concepts as the locked-room murder, as well as the deductive processes and speculative re-enactments favored by Japanese mysteries, Lo and Yeung Sin-ling’s screenplay will have no problem holding attention. However, except for a bold stunt utilizing ropes and a pulse-quickening gunfight in the last 15 minutes or so, the pacing is too even-keeled to deliver any edge-of-your-seat tension. This may be why both the final unlocking of mysteries and even the twist ending feel underwhelming despite their cleverness.
The blueprints for the doggedly persistent Song could be famous fictional detectives like Keigo Higashino’s Galileo or Seishi Yokomizo’s Kousuke Kindaichi, while there’s a Holmes-Watson dynamic to his partnership with Guo. The strength of Lau’s and Tse’s perfs lies in their conscious effort to underplay the eccentricity of their roles, instead conveying their flawed humanity. The distractingly voluptuous Yang gives maximum oomph to a token femme role, making her fling with Guo a steamy diversion from the drier investigation scenes. Similarly, the delightful flirtation between forensic doctor Li Jia (Yumiko Cheng, svelte) and detective Xiaowu (Boran Jing, likable) could have taken on more dramatic weight.
Tech package is a treat. The lighting creates an ambience that’s almost Victorian in its haunting play of shadows, and Chan Chi-ying’s lensing takes full command of widescreen and elegant tracking shots to underscore the oppressive atmosphere of prisons, factories and police stations. This is reinforced by somber color tones, accentuating the bleak textures of rust, brick and faded wall paint.