When The Bullet Vanishes was first released back in 2012, the film received unfair criticism in some quarters due to its enormous debt to Guy Richie’s then popular Sherlock Holmes. Derivative or not, The Bullet Vanishes remains an innovative and intricately plotted cerebral thriller, primed to launch the return of its central detective, former prison warden, Inspector Song (Sean Lau). Only slightly late, Song is finally back to address another series of baffling deaths and conspiracies in 1930s China only this time he’s landed in a pulpy LA noir rather than the cowboy-tinged action of the previous film.
The Murderer Vanishes (消失的凶手, Xiāoshī de Xiōngshōu) revolves around Song’s Irene Adler figure, Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan), whom we saw Song making frequent prison visits to in The Bullet Vanishes. Song is called to the prison because Fu Yuan has mysteriously disappeared from her cell leaving only a Shawshank Redemption inspired red herring behind her. The strange bond between Song and Fu Yuan in which they chastely dance around each other in the ultimate long distance romance, dictates that Fu Yuan send him a letter to tell him exactly where she is so he can come and arrest her all over again.
After a hot date at the cemetery, Fu Yuan takes Song to a philosophy lecture in which the speaker, Professor Hua (Gordon Lam), muses on a thought experiment in which he discusses the ethical problem of making an active choice to sacrifice one life in order to save multiple lives and whether making such a choice is any different from committing a murder – i.e. pushing another person in front of a moving train to stop it hitting a crowd further up the track. The experiment is eerily echoed when a body falls out of the sky just as Song is about to re-arrest Fu Yuan, allowing her to once again slip away.
Song investigates and is arrested only to be recruited to solve the mystery of why so many of the workers at evil corporate boss Gao Minxiong’s (Guo Xiaodong) string of factories are suddenly leaping to their deaths whilst wearing shirts bearing slogans which decry him as a slave driver. Song is assisted by the girl he jilted at the alter eight years ago with whom he was improbably reunited on the train, Chang Sheng (Li Xiaolu), and a local policeman, Mao Jin (Rhydian Vaughan), as well as the philosophy professor but somehow this must all be linked to Fu Yuan’s mysteriously timed prison escape.
The biggest departure The Vanished Murderer has to deal with is the absence of co-star Nicholas Tse. Rather than give Song a new partner or attempt to ditch the buddy format altogether, Tse’s role has been awkwardly split into four with Song surrounded by his cohorts of varying stripes but never achieving the same kind of bond that made The Bullet Vanishes so satisfying. Many of the first film’s plot elements are also ported over wholesale, rehashing the same political subplots and betrayals but without the subtlety.
One again we have an exploited work force of factory workers suffering at the hands of a heartless capitalistic sociopath. Gao Minxiong is seen early on collaborating with a British businessman who warns him about the effects of the depression only for Gao to explain the “measures” he’s taken which include burning harvests to increase demand and therefore drive prices up, as well as closing factories to increase competition for jobs and therefore drive wages down. Gao also has a private militia he uses for strike breaking and indiscriminate massacre. The people suffer while the elites prosper, it’s an old story.
The Bullet Vanishes may have had one foot in the Old West, but The Vanished Murderer has stayed in the same geographical area whilst jumping fifty years into the future in terms of tone. Gone are the lawless, dingy back alleys and saloons – The Murderer Vanishes takes place under bright sunlight, in an airy city surrounded by green country estates. Song has even switched up his zany bowler hat from the first film for a wide brimmed fedora and the musical score also pulls in some Spanish guitar to ram home that West coast style. This is a land of flappers and jazz babies, filled with art deco elegance and international flair.
For all that it’s a pulp world too and as such exempts itself from the need to make any kind of real sense. The central mystery is nowhere near as compelling as that of The Bullet Vanishes and resolves in a less than satisfactory manner. In the great pulp tradition action set pieces become increasingly ridiculous until the point Song and Fu Yuan attempt to escape by riding a horse through a building. The film’s finale takes place entirely on a train and does at least make good use of its CGI budget even if it’s a disappointingly simple way to conclude.
A slight misstep after the well plotted charm of The Bullet Vanishes, The Vanished Murderer can’t live up to the promise of the first film. The relationship between Song and Fu Yuan ought to take centre stage but the pair spend too much time apart to make it work and the film kills off a promising ongoing plot strand for the sake of cheap melodrama in the closing moments. Still, The Vanished Murderer provides enough thrills of its own even if lighter in tone and with a weaker central mystery to make the continuing adventures of Inspector Song worth investigating.
Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)