'The Vanished Murderer' ('Siu Sut Dik Hung Sau'/'Xiao Shi De Xiong Shou'): Film Review

Courtesy of Distribution Workshop
Gripping drama disappears under a convoluted plot and contrived political commentary.

Hong Kong director Lo Chi-leung conjures a noir-tinged thriller about a detective's investigation in a Chinese city in the 1930s.

Three years after ushering in the incredibly complex yet relentlessly scintillating The Bullet Vanishes, Hong Kong helmer Lo Chi-leung has upped the ante with yet another detective thriller revolving around the investigation of a string of mysterious murders in the 1930s. Technically competent, visually ravishing and politically fiery, the merits of the noir-infused The Vanished Murderer sadly disappear under the weight of an overcooked narrative and painfully contrived analogies with real-life political developments in Hong Kong and China.

Banking on its novelty as a Chinese period thriller and the appeal of Lau Ching-wan — who is certainly stretched to his limits here with a performance mirroring his turns in The Bullet Vanishes and Johnnie To’s Mad Detective — The Vanished Murderer should generate some moderate business as a niche release beyond its domestic markets.

To’s fatalistic fare is hardly the only template from which Lo has drawn inspiration. In fact, influences from further ashore are apparent throughout the film, as the director and his screenwriter Yang Qianling take visual and plot cues from, among others, M, Metropolis and Les Miserables. What these films share is a setting in which the unjust reign, and so it is where The Vanished Murderer’s protagonist must go. Arriving from Tiancheng (“Celestrial City”) at Hong City to pursue a prisoner who has broken out of jail, detective Song Donglu (Lau) discovers a realm where state-business collusion is endemic. In fact, everything seems to be owned by one tycoon: not only able to manipulate the economy by rejigging his various businesses, Gao Minxiong (Guo Xiaodong, Blind Massage) also makes sure he has his way with his private militia.

Just like all the film noir protagonists before him, the self-styled all-knowing Song becomes increasingly lost amid red herrings. The Vanished Murderer offers a sea of them: the fugitive Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan) with whom Song seems to share some kind of romantic past is nothing more than a harbinger of worse things to come, as a wave of suicides suddenly sweeps across the city. Song discovers the dead are all workers from Gao’s factories, but the businessman somehow turns up and demands the detective prove that the deaths are all the handiwork of a serial killer. As Song probes further into the case, he observes a philosophy professor (Gordon Lam) urging his students to think about social justice a varied class comprising idealists, bumpkins and Gao’s very own playboy scion.

And this is just the first half hour of a film filled with endless twists and turns. But dead ends are aplenty: Tracking The Vanished Murderer is like watching a magician performing an endless hat-trick. Granted, Lo plucks ever more intriguing and good-looking things out of the ether, but the wonder soon wears off as things fail to cohere as the story proceeds.

Beyond a certain point, the inexplicable plot no longer seems to matter the reason Fu Yuan manages to escape from prison, which should have been the crucial mystery here, stems from some flimsy philosophy rather than real logic. Perhaps what Lo is trying to say is that the message matters more than the narrative conveying it, but the rampant allegories about ongoing problems in Hong Kong or China are never convincingly massaged into the story. Sometimes, the best social commentary is better hinted at rather than hammered home.

Opens: Nov. 27 (Mainland China), Dec. 3 (Hong Kong)

Production companies: Film Unlimited, in a Le Vision Pictures presentation

Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Gordon Lam, Li Xiaolu, Jiang Yiyan

Director: Lo Chi-leung

Screenwriter: Yang Qianling

Producers: Derek Yee, Mandy Law

Executive producer: Zhang Zhao, Jia Yueting

Director of photography: Edmund Fung

Art director: Man Lim-chung

Editors: Al Lo, Lee Ka-wing

Music: Chan Kwong-wing

International Sales: Distribution Workshop

In Cantonese (Hong Kong) or Mandarin (Mainland China)

No rating; 121 minutes