Heartfall Arises (惊天破 / 驚心破, Ken Wu Pinru, 2016)

Sean Lau Ching-wan and Nicholas Tse are together again after being denied the opportunity to reteam for a sequel to the acclaimed The Bullet Vanishes but if Heartfall Arises (Mainland China – 惊天破  / HK – 驚心破) was intended to repeat the successful buddy cop pulp of Bullet it sadly fails. A very modern tale of chess playing genius detectives, Heartfall Arises tantalises with some bizarre B-movie antics but remains intent on becoming this year’s big arthouse leaning crime thriller. Unfortunately Wu’s highly stylised approach, though often impressive, only serves to highlight the weaknesses inherent in the film’s construction.

Taking the lead this time, Tse plays snappy dresser and maverick cop John Ma who, when we first meet him, is busy giving a chess lesson to a little boy on a park bench while the rest of the Hong Kong police department is hot on the trail of a serial killer, The General (Gao Weiguang), who’s been targeting “evil” corporate big wigs. Ma wades in to save the day but, tragically, he and the killer are caught in a face-off in which both fire their guns at the same time with Ma securing a headshot only to be shot in the heart. Luckily Ma is saved by medical science thanks to a heart transplant from, you guessed it, The General.

Whilst in the hospital Ma meets police psychoanalyst, Calvin Che (Sean Lau Ching-wan), who (besides being another chess expert) has a theory about cell memory and the possibility that personality traits can be inherited through organ transplant. Ma has been relegated to desk work since returning to the police force but gets a chance to return to active duty when a spate of incidents occur eerily mimicking The General’s crime spree. Could his new heart really help them catch a killer, or will Ma too find himself crossing the line from law enforcement to vigilante avenger?

Though the personality transplant logic sets us up for a series of silly B-movie shenanigans, the idea is never treated with anything less than total seriousness. Thus when Ma realises that he suddenly likes spicy food we’re supposed to be worried – doubly so when he starts having visions of a pretty girl he doesn’t know frolicking on a romantic beach, especially as his nice doctor girlfriend has already gone out of her way to tell us she doesn’t mind very much about Ma’s new tastebuds. Figuring out the girl becomes key but, it seems, Ma is incorruptible when it comes to love making this particular drama ally a dead end.

Drama is where Heartfall Arises truly flatlines. Despite having played such a large part in the success of The Bullet Vanishes, Tse and Lau never generate the same kind of chemistry which made their previous collaboration so enjoyable. Both characters are hugely underwritten with Tse bundled into expensive looking fashionable outfits proving a mismatch with his cerebral policeman persona whereas Lau sports a scrabbly chin beard more in keeping with a hipster hacker than an uptight shrink. The cardinal sin is that Heartfall Arises actually pinches one of its central twists from The Bullet Vanishes but does it so clumsily as to completely undermine everything which has gone before.

Heartfall Arises wouldn’t be the first Hong Kong thriller to get away with a nonsensical plot but its relentless pretentiousness robs it of the possibility of escaping rigour through style. Slickly shot, Wu aims for a swanky, upscale noir from the well appointed office blocks to fancy apartments and Ma’s strangely dapper attire but the elite cops vibe remains decidedly low stakes as Ma and Che swap philosophical quotes and talk chess until the potentially explosive finale. A buggy chase in Thailand proves particularly unexciting as Wu fails to make the action scenes compensate for the weakness of the plot, and though he has some intriguing visual ideas they’re often ones which don’t serve the film. Taking itself far too seriously, Heartfall Arises would be more fun if it allowed itself to revel in the ridiculousness of its premise but becomes far too caught up looking at itself in the mirror to notice that the villain has escaped by grapple gun and taken the audience’s suspension of disbelief with him.


HK Trailer (English subtitles)

Mad Detective (神探, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2007)

mad-detectiveThe border between “eccentric” and just “insane” can be quite a thin one but that tiny liminal space of uncertainty is where the hero of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Mad Detective (神探) resides. The titular Mad Detective, Bun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan), is about as unreliable a narrator as they come owing to the fact that he experiences frequent hallucinations and delusions meaning that absolutely nothing of his perception can be taken at face value. Despite his unorthodox approach, Bun is a fine a detective with an almost supernatural crime solving ability but, tragically, sometimes he sees more than he would like of human nature.

The day rookie detective Ho (Andy On) joins the force, he walks in on an unusual scene. Knives and cutting implements are lined up on a table while a pig’s carcass hangs from the ceiling. Veteran cop Bun then enters into the mind of a killer by viciously stabbing the pig carcass (and lovingly caressing it afterwards), before tucking himself inside a suitcase which he asks Ho to throw down the stairs only so he can then leap out and shout “The guy at the ice-cream store did it!”. A montage of newspaper cuttings testifies to Bun’s track record, but his career is over when he suddenly decides to cut off his own ear and present it to his boss at his retirement party.

Not so long after, two cops enter a forrest and only one leaves. That’s one problem, but the missing cop’s gun has been used in a series of robbery/homicides which is another. Exhausting all leads in trying to find out what happened between gun losing Wong (Lee Kwok-Lun) and his shady partner Chi-wai (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) in a dark forest 18 months previously, Ho turns to Bun despite the misgivings of his colleagues. Bun’s wife begs him not to go back to police work, fearing for both his life and his mental state but Bun would rather live crazy than bored and so it’s back to burying himself alive and chatting with ghosts among other strange pursuits undertaken in the name of law enforcement.

Bun’s major talent is his ability to see people’s “inner personalities” which take the form of personified aspects of their psyches. We see through Bun’s POV as the figures in front of him change without warning – fighting one moment with a lady cop in a men’s bathroom but turning to see an overweight veteran in her place at the next. Bun comes to suspect Chi-wan thanks to his overly complicated personality which has seven different “ghosts” – an amusing sight when they all end up piled into the back of his tiny car. This goes someway to explaining the bemused looks Bun often attracts as he chats with people no one else can see.

Reactions to Bun’s outburst in a convenience store seem like they might just be mild embarrassment at his causing a scene, but could also easily be because he’s shouting at someone who isn’t really there. Whether “real” or not, it’s clear that Bun’s emotional intelligence and ability to read people are key to his crime solving talent. As he later tells Ho, it’s not about logic, it’s about emotion. Through “extreme profiling”, Bun “becomes” the killer, experiencing their emotions to get to the heart of the crime. Bun, like Manhunter’s Will Graham, absorbs too much of the world he sees around him and is unable to reconcile his reality with the commonly accepted one. Quite mad, but also brilliant, Bun’s genius makes him dangerous in a hundred different ways.

To and Wai create doubles and dualities left, right, and centre. Fittingly enough, Mad Detective takes inspiration from The Lady from Shanghai for its shoot out finale which occurs in a house of mirrors. This time it’s not just Bun’s vision which is uncertain even as he can see multiples of ghosting personalities, but ours too as reality fractures into tiny, reflective fragments. Ho, by the film’s conclusion, may have absorbed too much of Bun, but also perhaps of the worst aspects of his profession. Bun’s tragedy is his innocence – he literally sees the bad the in people and tries to exorcise demons through exposing their presence, but Ho’s is cowardice in his refusal to truly look at the people in front of him rather than blindly follow the nearest available leader. A supremely complex and original thriller, To and Wai’s Mad Detective is a fascinating psychological journey constructed with unusual rigour and as oblique and elliptical as it is entertaining.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Call of Heroes (危城, Benny Chan, 2016)

call of heroesA blast from the past in more ways than one, Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes (危城, Wēi Chéng) is a western in disguise though one filtered through Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone more than John Ford. Filled with Morricone-esque musical riffs and poncho wearing reluctant heroes, Chan’s bounce back to the post-revolutionary warlord era is one pregnant with contemporary echoes yet totally unafraid to add a touch of uncinematic darkness to its wisecracking world.

1914 – three years after the collapse of Chinese feudalism and warlords rule the land, each vying for power and terrain but taking little account of the displaced people in their path. The residents of Stone City find this out the hard way when notorious general Cao Ying wades into town and conducts a widespread massacre seemingly for the fun of it. Plucky school teacher Bai Ling manages to escape with some of her pupils even whilst other teachers and children are being summarily executed by Cao’s troupes.

Having left with nothing and walked miles, Bai and the children are near starvation when they stop into a noodle house to share a single bowl. Unfortunately the noodle house is about to be robbed but fortunately one of the diners is bearded wanderer Ma Feng (Eddie Peng) who isn’t up for anyone disturbing his serious food coma. Impressed with Ma’s skills, the kids and Bai make their way to Pucheng where Bai has a cousin but Cao is still on the warpath and trouble has a way of tracking good people down.

Pucheng (the name of which literally means ordinary town), is watched over by the noble sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-wan) though the protective garrison has been sent to the front leaving them with only a skeleton defence. When a mysterious visitor arrives in town and proceeds to shoot dead a man, woman, and even a child, Yang arrests him but when the killer turns out to be Cao Ying’s unhinged son, a number of questions arise. Yang is committed to justice – no matter the man’s name, he ought to pay for his crimes. Yet, Cao Shaolun’s presence is sure to attract his father’s attention and so many of the townspeople feel it might be better to let Cao Shaolun go. Placate a tyrant and undermine the idea of justice by failing to enforce the law or sign your own death warrant by standing up for your principles, it’s a frontiersman’s dilemma.

The references to classic Hollywood westerns are obvious enough, particularly when the narrative takes a turn for the High Noons as Yang finds himself standing alone as the sole resistance to the oncoming militia man threat. Though the townspeople do not exactly turn on Yang in the same way they turn on Kane, they clearly choose appeasement over war. Yang’s dedication to justice is purehearted, there’s little hint of personal vanity in his decision to stand up for the rule of law but only the knowledge that folding now is the same as bowing to Cao’s tyranny.

Though introduced as a possible protagonist, Ma Feng takes a far smaller role in the action than might be expected. Clearly channeling Mifune’s Sanjuro, Peng’s wisecracking drifter and cynical, reluctant hero is almost at odds with the serious business of law vs politics over in Pucheng. His character centric subplot of conflict with a former friend who works for the other side is insufficiently developed to support the emotional weight it’s intended to carry and sometimes feels like a distraction from the main narrative though the great pot mountain based martial arts set piece is certainly one worth waiting for.

If Peng’s Ma Feng feels slightly misplaced with his cynicism and comic stunts, Louis Koo’s hammed up villain Cao Shaolun is in an entirely different film altogether. Wildly over the top, Koo plays Cao Shaolun as a permanently amused psychopath, all crazy eyes and manic laughter. A self consciously cool guy, Cao Shaolun dresses in white and murders innocents with a golden gun all the while knowing he can do as he pleases simply by the virtue of his name.

Shot with a heavily digital aesthetic, Call of Heroes’ evidently high production values are sometimes reduced to a televisual quality or otherwise let down by substandard CGI. The fight scenes themselves are filmed with an old fashioned rigour filled with innovative and exciting choreography and are refreshingly humour free. Like the best westerns, Call of Heroes contains its own parable in that the best weapon against tyranny is a strong and righteous populace but the final stretch almost undermines its noble aims by presenting what is either a revolutionary spring lead by the people for the people, or a worrying case of mob justice.

Prone to narrative dead ends in setting up major characters only to sideline or kill them off unexpectedly, Call of Heroes has a frustrated quality in not being able to decide whether it wants to be a serious call to arms for standing up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming force, or a comedic romp in which a cocky drifter sorts everything out by accident. Either way, Call of Heroes does provide a number of genuinely exciting martial arts set pieces even if floundering slightly in-between them.


Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Law Chi-leung, 2012)

20128291720405212Review of Law Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Xiāo Shī Dè Zǐ Dàn) – first published on UK Anime Network in June 2013.


In 1930’s Shanghai there’s a bullet factory where a young girl has been accused of pilfering. The punishment, it seems, is a cruel and very public trial by Russian roulette where fate, the gods or whoever will judge her innocent or guilty with a simple click or a loud bang. Crying out her innocence to the end, the girl pulls the trigger and presumably never actually hears the outcome as her co-workers look on in horror – she must have been guilty though, right? Or she would have been spared by the immortal powers at be.

Following this horrific incident, other deaths start to occur in the factory – the strange thing is, on examining the bodies, no trace of a bullet can be found (nor any casings at the scene). Some of the munitions workers start to believe the ghost of the poor girl who died must have returned to take revenge – perhaps she was innocent after all. To solve this intriguing mystery, the police turn to two unorthodox detectives – recently transferred former prison warden Song (Lau Ching-Wan) and maverick cop “fastest gun in town” Guo (Nicholas Tse). Neither of these two are buying the “supernatural” explanation and both are determined to get to the truth even if they work in very different ways. The solution is going to be a lot more complicated than anyone could have thought, and will, ultimately, be painful to hear.

Let’s get this out of this way first – yes, the film owes a significant debt to the recent “westernisation”, if you want to put it that way, of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and other Victorian set crime dramas (e.g. Ripper Street) which seek to present themselves as taking place in a totally lawless world denizened by a criminal population that is somehow both repellent and glamourous. Although The Bullet Vanishes is set in 1930s, it still has a noticeably “Victorian” sensibility presenting a world in which rapid industrialisation has brought about mass corruption and a decline in morality. Once again, setting a film in China’s past proves to be a surefire way of getting subtextual criticisms of modern China past the country’s strict censorship regulations.

The murder mystery itself is certainly very intriguing with a series of unpredictable twists and turns. The idea of disappearing bullets might not be a new one, but The Bullet Vanishes manages to find an original solution that is perfectly plausible within its own time setting. Also, the “supernatural” element exists only as an idea and is never seriously entertained as an explanation by any of the investigators – something of a break from the genre norm.

The two detectives seem much more like rivals than partners for much of the film though an awkward sort of camaraderie does eventually grow up between them. Lau and Tse both give excellent performances but Tse in particular who’s often criticised for being a pretty boy trading on family connections, really proves himself with his surprisingly complex Guo. There is, however, the familiar criticism that the female characters are severely underdeveloped and seem almost like a rushed afterthought. Yang Mi gives a lot to the barely two dimensional Little Lark but can’t disguise the fact that the character only exists as a love interest for Guo and that in turn a love interest for Guo only exists so that we can have the “obligatory” love scene. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the love scene itself didn’t feel quite so “obligatory” – it could easily have been excised and the film would have remained pretty much unchanged as the scene feels as if it exists purely to satisfy a perceived audience need for romance.

There really isn’t much to fault with The Bullet Vanishes. As a slightly cerebral mainstream period thriller it’s certainly very successful. It has an engaging mystery element, strong characters played excellently by the cast and extremely slick, modern direction. In Song they’ve created a very interesting character who’d be very welcome in a sequel or two. His relationship with female prison inmate, a sort of Irene Adler figure to Song’s cerebral detective, who he’d previously investigated before being transferred was quite an usual idea that would really benefit from further exploration. All in all The Bullet Vanishes is a very impressive and enjoyable period procedural that is truly a cut above its genre origins.