Film Review: The Bullet Vanishes

Police track "phantom bullet" murders in this moody, twisty period mystery set in a Chinese munitions factory.

Science meets magic in The Bullet Vanishes, a surprising, well-crafted mystery set in 1930s China. Strong acting and special effects make this the equal of many Hollywood offerings, but the film's tricky plotting and assured direction set it above most genre exercises. This Hong Kong–China coproduction opened strong in Asian markets.

Two policemen are assigned to a puzzling case involving murders in an enormous munitions plant. Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse) likes to think of himself as "the fastest gun in Tiancheng," but he also dislikes the city's rulers and has a soft spot for its underclass. The tentative Song Donglu (Lau Ching-wang) is a more scientific detective, testing theories on himself if necessary.

Factory owner Ding (Liu Kai-chi) uses intimidation to keep his workers in line, leading to a public Russian-roulette "suicide" of a woman from the provinces. Subsequent deaths from "phantom bullets" which are never recovered suggest that the factory has been cursed. One worker is found dead in a locked room, questioning Song's belief that there are no perfect crimes, only "perfect scapegoats."

Suspects become victims as the investigation proceeds, and the cops themselves fall prey to attacks. Song and Guo treat each other warily, both aware that their police force is riddled with corruption. They pick up clues from Little Lark (Yang Mi), a fortune-teller in the red-light district, and fight off threats from Wang Hai (Wang Ziyi), Ding's enforcer.

The Bullet Vanishes takes place just as China is embracing industrialization, which means Song often has to fight old beliefs before his colleagues will accept his deductions. (Part of the fun of the film is how primitive police methods appear to us today.)

Because it is set in the past, The Bullet Vanishes can be blunt about political corruption. Ding's workers are basically slaves, the police are only concerned with protecting the wealthy, and the denizens of the red-light district where much of the story unfolds have to scramble to survive. It's easy to connect the story to Foxconn workers, or the latest Chinese legal scandal.

Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies are obvious models for The Bullet Vanishes. Like Ritchie, Lo Chi-leung shifts back and forth in time, replaying scenes from different viewpoints. He jumps from one storyline to another, and uses props and action to define characters. It's an approach that will be familiar to viewers here, although the dialogue is delivered so quickly that it can be hard to keep up with subtitles.

Hong Kong star Lau Ching-wang is excellent as Song Donglu (he played a similar role in Johnnie To's Mad Detective), while Nicholas Tse seems more engaged than in some of his recent films. The supporting characters might seem broad by Western standards, and a few of the scenes feel overwrought. But, on the whole, this is an intelligent, well-made mystery that will satisfy fans of the genre.