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Vanished Murderer, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Ah, so THAT'S why it didn't make it to America."
1 stars

"The Bullet Vanishes" was a nifty little period mystery that featured the most entertaining variation on "she stabbed him with an icicle" to come about in a while, and it seemed to draw a decent crowd, so it was something of a surprise when this sequel - from the same creative team and looking just as slick - didn't also open in North America the way its predecessor did. Finally watching it, the reason why is clear - the new film is wall-to-wall nonsense, and only rarely the impressively bizarre sort.

It opens with former guard Song Donglu (Lau Ching-wan) being called back to prison to investigate the escape of Fuyuan (Jiang Yiyan), who apparently left the smitten detective with a nifty puzzle when she decided to escape custody, then sending him a letter saying she's in the city of Xiang and to come find her. The unusual arrest - he finds her at the grave of a family friend and then she takes him to watch Professor Huo Hua (Lam Ka-tung) lecture on philosophy - is cut short when a man jumps to his death in front of them, his shirt carrying a message protesting businessman Gao Minxiong (Guo Xiaodong). Fuyuan takes that opportunity to escape, but constable Mao Jin (Rhydian Vaughan) finds Donglu and the one-time fiancee he met on the train, Chang Sheng (Li Xiaolu), standing over the body. Donglu sees something suspicious about the whole set-up, leading the three to work together to investigate the connection this apparent suicide has to both other crimes and Fuyuan.

Screenwriter Yeung Sin-ling does seem to have a pretty solid idea of how this all fits together; what she doesn't seem to have is a coherent plan for Donglu and his team to actually figure it out and do something about it. A whole lot of weight is carried to letters and number puzzles from Fuyuan that contain secret clues as far as the plot is concerned, and there is a sudden interest in hypnosis at one point so that the history Songlu and Sheng Chang share can come out all at once rather than being teased or revealing itself as it becomes relevant. And it's not even that the movie director Law Chi-leung makes of Yeung's script often jumps from point A to point E without what seem like fairly necessary stops in between; the film actually has multiple levels of dumb: It is possible to spend so much time annoyed that the movie never offers a solution to the problem of how Fuyuan got out of her cell when the tunnel she dug proved to be a red herring that it doesn't occur to the viewer to wonder just how the heck she was digging a tunnel from an upper floor in the first place.

It doesn't really help that only a fraction of the cast of the first returns, either. Lau Ching-wan is generally unlikely to let a viewer down and he doesn't here, plus or minus that ill-considered hypnosis scene; he gives Donglu the same sort of tight focus leavened with a fair amount of eccentricity and whimsy that he did in the previous film, and he nails his half of the Holmes-and-Adler vibe that Donglu and Fuyuan share, a genuine respect and attraction that sadly can only fitfully breach the divide between detective and criminal (Jiang Yiyan doesn't exactly fail to hold up her end so much as she's got to be mysterious rather than open, and the material necessary for that to work just isn't there). The big trouble is that he's never given a partner who complements him nearly as well as Nicholas Tse and Jing Boran did in the first film; Rhydian Vaughan slots into the "sensible beat cop" slot but never has the sort of hook that allows Mao Jin to push back at Donglu, while Li Xiaolu is given a petulant ex who never sells a prior connection to him. It's telling that, though these two are described as partners and assistants, Yeung and Law leave them out of a bunch of scenes, not having any use for them at the moment. Guo Xiaodong at least always has a clear purpose as the film's most obvious villain and he dives into it, even if Gao Minxiong's mustache is too tidy to properly twirl.

As much of a mess as all that is, even before the filmmakers further trip over their own feet by trying to talk about the economics motivating both the protests and villainy, there are moments when they threaten to overcome all that with sheer style. It's as sharp-looking a film as the predecessor, with fantastic costumes and production design, with cinematographer Fung Yuen-man doing a fine job of framing the scene so that, while it probably looks nice in the 3D conversion mentioned in the credits, it never looks overcrowded in 2D. Chan Kwong-wing's bouncy score, notable for its whimsical whistling, is just anachronistic enough to inject some extra energy into the film even as the love theme given to Donglu and Fuyuan seems like self-parody (maybe the Chinese lyrics aren't as bad as the English-language ones). Action director Kenji Tanigaki may be called upon to do his thing at what seems like a moments notice, but even if the first of the film's two big action finales may be ridiculous with its armed private security chasing a man on horseback through a building and the second spends more time running up and down a train than even a lover of rail-based action like myself has the patience for, they aren't far from working well enough to make one inclined to forgive how the film gets there.

Unfortunately, there's only so much that a couple of impressively elaborate sequences can do when the hour and a half leading up to them has been just punishingly stupid. "The Bullet Vanishes" had me hoping that its sleuths might have another case or two in them, but "The Vanished Murderer" made it clear that, like the greed-driven villains that tend to set these mysteries in motion, you should sometimes just be happy with something working out well the first time.

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originally posted: 02/09/18 11:32:41
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Directed by
  Chi-Leung Law

Written by
  Sin Ling Yeung

  Ching Wan Lau
  Xiaolu Li
  Rhydian Vaughan
  Xiaodong Guo
  Ka Tung Lam
  Yiyan Jiang

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