The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012) provokes me into a slightly introspective mood. I was happily going with the flow right up to the last ten minutes and then found I didn’t like the ending. No, I need to put it more strongly than that. I hate the ending! This is going to make writing this review somewhat complicated because, as a general rule, I avoid spoilers. In this case, we have a series of murders in which the victims are shot but the bullet vanishes, plus a locked-room mystery. Because the solutions are particularly ingenious — indeed, I can’t remember this particular solution to the vanishing bullet phenomenon before — I can’t discuss the detail. Everything that follows this point is somewhat hypothetical, discussing the principles involved so you can understand why I hesitate on whether to recommend this film.
Thematically, we’re into the difficult area of deciding what constitutes justice in a Confucian social system with the frame of a formal judgment at both ends of the film. Confucius was absolutely clear on the role of Heaven as a Supreme Being, “He who offends against Heaven has none to whom he can pray.” This means Heaven watches what we do and is ultimately responsible for the administration of justice. If we violate Heaven’s will, it will turn away from us. Indeed, the threat of losing Heaven’s blessing is a deterrent sanction to ensure we retain our integrity, no matter how corrupt those around us. This reinforces the general rule that, if we have faith and are innocent of wrongdoing, we should always be able to rely on Heaven to keep us safe.
The film begins with what looks to be a formal invocation of the Way of Heaven to determine who is “right” in an accusation of theft at a munitions factory. Heaven appears to decide the accused is guilty. But, uncharacteristically, the spirit does not leave Earth as it should. Rather it stays and appears responsible for a curse on all those who continue to work in the factory. At first, no-one is inclined to believe in the curse but, when a foreman is shot and there’s absolutely no sign of a bullet, the workforce begins to lose its nerve. When a second death occurs, the body being found in a room with no means for the killer to escape, panic edges closer.
The investigative duo assigned to the case is Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse) and Song Donglu (Lau Ching Wan). Both have highly refined powers of observation and impeccable powers of deduction. Guo is also a fast-draw expert and crack shot, while Song is deeply into practical investigation. If he can try a method of killing on himself or others, he will study what happens to the body during the process of coming closer to death. Up to the start of the film, he has always managed to avoid death. Neither are inclined to believe in the supernatural, but they are slow to come up with methods that will cause death and not leave a bullet or a trace of some kind, e.g. if the bullet was made of ice and could somehow be kept cold enough to be carried around and then fired from a gun, would there not be traces of liquid or a stain at the scene? This obviously calls for testing. The “locked-room” puzzle is equally challenging. Our detectives are walking down a corridor, approaching a room when they hear a shot. When they open the door and enter, they find a man dead, but no weapon and absolutely no way anyone could have left the room (there’s no-one hiding behind the door).
Frankly, this is all beautifully done. The period detail of the 1930s looks and feels right, the CGI of the munitions factory has a generally threatening air, and the level of technology seems to have been faithfully recreated. Indeed, in the more traditional style of Sherlock Holmes, we have everything in the set-up going along smoothly. But the role of Little Lark (Mini Yang) is the first sign of confusion. She’s one of these wheeler-dealer fortune tellers with little birds that are trained to hop out of their cage and pull a little envelope from a pack of envelopes, each containing a prediction about the future. For reasons not immediately clear, she’s threatened and this sparks the previously undeclared love with Guo. This love affair is not really developed and adds nothing to the ending. Moving closer to the end, a phenomenal number of bullets are fired and the munitions factory is blown up. To my mind, this is unnecessary pandering to the lowest common denominator section of the market that believes a good film must always contain shooting and explosions. And so it is we come to the end. I suppose one way of looking at the question Heaven is asked to decide is whether the ends justify the means. Just how far can the wronged go in pursuit of justice? In a utilitarian world, the answer would be a moral thumbs up if there’s a major benefit to the many. But the Confucian Heaven is a slightly more unpredictable quantity. Personally, I think the gun should have jammed or the bullet failed to fire. If we’re going to invoke a supernatural agency, that’s the least we can expect. What we actually see is completely contrary to natural law and deeply annoying to viewers like me.
So what’s my conclusion? Well, I’m not going to condemn The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan just because of the way the final loose ends are tied up. Director Chi-Leung Law has done a remarkable job in engaging our interest and involving us in this difficult moral debate. I’m prepared to give him great credit. Too often I walk out of a cinema feeling unmoved. This film succeeded in making me angry which is a sign of its quality. Lau Ching Wan is wonderful to watch as the more brainy detective — a far better performance than in Mad Detective — and although some of the villains are stereotypical and cardboardy, there’s a high level of commitment from a good all-round cast. Had it not been for the end, I would have been hailing this as one of the best films out of Hong Kong this year so, if for no other reason, you should go and see it. You never know, you might like the ending!
Other films by Lau Ching Wan:
The Great Magician or Daai mo seut si (2011)
Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam (2011)
Mad Detective or San taam (2007)
Overheard or Sit yan fung wan (2009)
Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2 (2011)