Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ten Statements About....THE BULLET VANISHES (2012)

Song may be Hong Kong's answer to the Robert Downey Jr.
Holmes, but his motivations and curiousity proves very, very
1) It's obvious that this film in its look and feel is emulating the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes film; the soundtrack in particular seems to be ripping whole pages out of that franchise. And yet, because this is a Hong Kong film set on mainland China in the 30's, there are subtle changes in tone, in characterization and in pace that makes this film feel unique.

2) And one of the more interesting variations lie in the presentation of our Holmes stand-in, Ching Wan Lau's Song. Right from from when we first see him--attempting to hang himself as an experiment to prove that an inmate was wrongly accused--we get the sense that he's motivated by curiousity and the need to know, but those qualities have redirected his attentions elsewhere. He's a very enigmatic figure, not as dynamic as Downey's Holmes but at times much more intriguing.

3) And while we're on the subject of Song, perhaps the most amazing aspect of his character is this strange relationship he has with a female prison inmate that we learned committed the perfect murder, then confessed after a few years. There might be this tendency to write the prisoner off as Irene Adler to Song's Holmes, but there's something that's not romantic, but loads more intimate about their relationship with each other...especially when they correspond during his investigation of this case.
"I ain't no Nigel Bruce, muthafucka!"

4) If Song is subdued and not as flashy as Downey, Nicholas Tse's Guo makes up for it. There are large stretches where Guo comes off less like a police detective and more like a gunslinger, shooting first and acting later. And that tendency to act first makes his ultimate fate all the more logical.

5) While the plot is flawed and suffers from a degree of OCD, I find it fascinating that as Song and Guo unravel this mystery, each level of the solution reflects a different subgenre in detective fiction. Through the film's hour and forty-five minute running time, the plot transforms from a deductive film to a locked room mystery to a police procedural....and on and on until you realize finally that what we've been watching is a hardboiled detective thriller that Sherlock Holmes somehow wandered into.

6) I very much appreciated how Song's confrontation with the ultimate culprit is not clear cut. Since Director Chi-Leung Lo refuses to give us a concrete indication as to who did what, we can make our own decisions. And also, I suspect that Lo isn't interested in giving us simple answers, just more questions.

7) And I also appreciate how most everything Lo lays out in the first act pays off in the third--especially the hanging experiment in Song's first scene. And the moments where we see how far in advance Song has figured so much of this case out throws his intelligence and deductive reasoning into sharper relief.
I wish I knew who the actress was who played the character
between our two protaganists, because she's the closest
Song has to a girlfriend...and is loads of fun!

8) While I realize that we're suppose to respond to Yang Mi's Little Lark, who is Guo's love interest, I was rather more taken with the pathologist friend of Song (If you're wondering why I can't identify the actress, it's because trying to find a complete cast list for this film with the character names has proven to be damn near impossible) who examines the body and discovers a key clue to the solution. This is what a 'character actor' is supposed to do--advance the plot while also giving us some flavoring to the proceedings....and some of the flavor she adds, like the ostrich she keeps in her lab, is loads of fun.

9) I'll admit--while some of the aspects of the solution are cool (the revelation of what the 'phantom bullet' is, for example), it's frustrating that those aspects are brought up, then forgotton. Part of the fun of a mystery is the demystification of the crime, and I needed a little more elaboration for these revelations to be truly satisfying.

10) Even though there's an element of 'is the crime supernatural or not' in Sherlock Holmes, in this film there's a little bit more verisimilitude to the angle thanks to the culture in which it takes place. Because the culture of China at that time accepted the presence of ghosts, the idea this is revenge being enacted upon the boss of a munitions factory by a wrongfully accused woman is a plausible angle even if we know it can't be true.

Overall...Even with its derivative nature, a film that may not be 100% successful but has enough differences in tone, plotting and characterization from its American inspiration to be watchable.

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