A version of this review appeared in The Age, August 30, 2012.
In the early going, Lo Chi Leung's period thriller suggests a Chinese equivalent to Guy Ritchie's manic Sherlock Holmes films. After a amusingly sinister credit sequence depicting humble workers toiling at an arms factory, we're introduced to Song (Lau Ching-Wan), the kind of Great Detective who thinks nothing of sticking his head in a noose to see how fast he can escape.
But the grave, compassionate Song remains a low-key presence in comparison to the frenzy of Holmes as played by Robert Downey Jr. Despite a few scenes of over-the-top gunplay and some impossibly cruel villains, The Bullet Vanishes proves to be a traditional mystery story where thought takes precedence over action.
Aided by a young, good-looking sidekick (Nicholas Tse), Song arrives in 1930s Shanghai to investigate a series of killings at the factory, in the wake of a death-by-Russian-roulette six months before. The victims have apparently been shot, yet no bullets can be found in the bodies. Could a ghost somehow be involved?
This is a minor film but an elegant one. Lau looks stylish in a fedora, the cinematographer Chi-Ying Chang goes all out with moody lighting, and the production designer Silver Cheung supplies a bit of art deco opulence to complement the mainly industrial setting. There's a neat solution to the central puzzle, and the script has some other memorable touches – such as Song's surprising bond with a convicted murderess (Jiang Yiyan) the only character who comes close to being his intellectual equal.