The Vanished Murderer (消失的凶手, Law Chi-leung, 2015)

vanished-murderWhen 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)

My Best Friend’s Wedding (我最好朋友的婚礼, Chen Feihong, 2016)

My Best Friend's WeddingChinese cinema screens are no stranger to the event movie, and so a Chinese remake of the much loved 1997 Hollywood rom-com My Best Friend’s Wedding (我最好朋友的婚礼, Wǒ Zuì Hǎo Péngyǒu de Hūnlǐ) arrives right on time for Chinese Valentine’s Day. Purely by coincidence of course! However, those familiar with the 1997 Julia Roberts starring movie may recall that My Best Friend’s Wedding is a classic example of the subverted romance which doesn’t end with the classic happy ever after, but acts as a tonic to the sickly sweet love stories Hollywood is known for by embracing the more realistic philosophy that sometimes it just really is too late and you have to accept that you let the moment get away from you, painful as that may be.

This time the story focuses on Gu Jia (Shu Qi), recently made editor-in-chief of a Chinese fashion magazine her career is riding high but there’s something nagging at Gu Jia’s happiness that she’s been content to keep on the back burner. On an important work assignment in Milan she begins remembering a wonderful holiday she had there with her childhood friend Lin Ran (Feng Shaofeng). Lin Ran is a football reporter who has been working in London with the BBC so he and Gu Jia have not seen each other for a while. Just as she’s going into her first fashion show, Gu Jia receives an unexpected phone call from Lin Ran who has some surprising news – he’s getting married. The following weekend. Suddenly Gu Jia’s world crumbles.

Jumping on the next plane to London, Gu Jia makes a fool of herself as a crying mess but meets a very nice, sympathetic guy who does a good job of pretending not to mind very much when she chucks champaign all over him during a drunken “conversation” with her mental Lin Ran. On arrival she’s thrilled to see the real Lin Ran but much less so to meet his wife to be – Xuan Xuan (Victoria Song), a very young, bubbly, and slightly silly girl from an extremely wealthy family. Gu Jia is even more determined than ever to derail Lin Ran’s wedding and win him back for herself.

There was undoubtedly something very 1990s about My Best Friend’s Wedding and its daring acknowledgement that sometimes the happy ending lies in learning to accept there are things you will always regret, but you just have to learn to live with them. Somehow it’s difficult to imagine a romantic comedy making a success of a “realistic” ending rather the dash to the airport final confessions and reconciliations the genre is known for in these more troubled times. It’s surprising that in switching the action to China the ages of the leads have increased – Julia Roberts’ character was 28 in the original film (the idea being to get married before 28) but Shu Qi and Feng Shaofeng are playing characters in their ‘30s who have already established themselves in extremely successful, international careers.

The majority of the film takes place in London and is filled with picturesque, touristy images of the various famous landmarks, sunshine filled green parks, and of course big red buses. This is the London inhabited by the elite super rich who flit between upscale boutiques and live in spacious Kensington townhouses with flashy convertibles parked in the paved driveway which is enclosed inside a large metal gate (at one point Gu Jia and Lin Ran take a ride on a double-decker as an “experience” because he hasn’t been on one in years). It’s all very “aspirational” in one sense, but also a little unpleasant as rich people hang out with other rich people because they’re all rich together and all anyone’s interested in is how much money everyone else has.

This becomes the film’s central problem as it indulges in some the least subtle product placement to ever grace the cinema screen. On arrival in Milan, Gu Jia heads into the Bulgari hotel which has adverts for Bulgari watches on the TV screens (as the real hotel undoubtedly does) with the brand then turning up on shopping bags and even prominently on the lid of a wedding ring box. The film also makes a show of everything from whiskies to airlines and fashion houses including an actual cameo from designer Christian Louboutin.

The one thing it doesn’t showcase is any kind of emotional connection with the material. Shu Qi does what she can with an extremely underwritten part which provides her with no real way to explain just why it is she finds it impossible to reveal her true feelings to Lin Ran, but there’s little chemistry between any of the co-stars and the various connections between them never ring true.  Unlike the original film, Gu Jia’s “boyfriend” stooge (a Mandarin speaking British Chinese guy, Nick, played by Rhydian Vaughn) is not gay though he does briefly pretend to be to open a path for Lin Ran to choose Gu Jia over his wife-to-be.

A big budget, prestige picture moving from upscale Chinese high rise cities to biscuit tin London and elegant, neo-classical Milan, My Best Friend’s Wedding is a shallow affair which attempts to cover up for its lack of soul with high production values. Shu Qi does her best and turns in another characteristically charming performance with good support from her co-stars but they can’t make up for the lack of any real connection throughout the overly glossy proceedings. A mild misfire despite its starry cast, My Best Friend’s Wedding fails on both the comedic and romantic fronts yet does offer some very pretty shots of various picturesque European locales.

Original trailer (English subtitles)