Blanks for nothin'
"The Missing Gun" misses many opportunities by dawdling in contemplation when it could be showing its characters' histories or law enforcement in China.
By TOM X. CHAO
"The Missing Gun" begins with a compelling premise: a Chinese policeman loses his rare, state-issued gun loaded with three bullets. Ma Shan (Jiang Wen), a policeman in a small provincial village, wakes up one morning to discover his handgun missing from its holster. In panic, he searches his house for the gun, and immediately the film announces its stylistic intentions, with blurry hand-held shots and disjointed images of household objects flying everywhere. In case you missed the idea that this film is a "firecracker revelation" of Chinese cinema, as it is being touted, the opening credits slam the viewer with an MTV-style sequence of sped-up tracking shots through the narrow village streets, thudding rock music accompanying it.
As the story progresses, Ma Shan tries to recall what he did the previous evening but cannot, having gotten drunk at his sister's wedding. With the threat of expulsion from the force and even criminal charges hanging over him, Ma attempts to figure out who could have taken his gun. His search leads him through a web of his acquaintances, including his old army buddies, his former lover, and a wealthy businessman with a predilection for Italian suits.
|THE MISSING GUN|
|Original title: 尋搶.|
Written and directed by: Lu Chuan.
Cast: Jiang Wen, Ning Jing, Wu Yujuan, Shi Liang.
In Mandarin with English subtitles.
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Yet every time the film should drive home the urgency of the situation, it either turns perversely meditative or trots out a bag of not-quite-so-new cinematic tricks. Jerky hand-held shots, jump cuts, extreme close-ups, sped-up sequences, circular dollies, jarring stylistic juxtapositions all of these make for a lively viewing experience, but are far from fresh to Western movie-goers. In a Chinese film, yes, they represent some unexplored territory, but unfortunately carry the vague scent of playing catch-up to the West. Add to this the knowledge that the 30-year-old first-time director and writer, Lu Chuan, is a recent graduate of the Beijing Film Academy well, you get the picture. A film student is a film student in any language.
Considering the film was made on a low budget in a short time, the superficial gloss and technical polish may heighten its credibility a bit and certainly will add to its appeal for some viewers. (However, a few crucial shots are out of focus.) A Western-style rock score has been overlaid on the film, ostensibly to make the film palatable to contemporary audiences, and it largely works.
In the film's attempt to concentrate on the human relationships of Ma Shan and the villagers whom he suspects of taking his gun, unfortunately logic suffers. Why, in the very earliest stages of the search, doesn't the protagonist physically retrace his steps of the previous night? Maddeningly, he never even returns to the banquet hall or whatever public place he last had the gun! Instead, he has conversations with various slightly eccentric characters who perhaps don't get quite quirky enough (say, to the level of a David Lynch crazy).
Jiang Wen, the Tom Hanks of China, turns in a solid performance as Ma Shan, the local gendarme, but isn't given much to do. (His own last directorial outing, the epic "Devils on the Doorstep," leaves "The Missing Gun" firing blanks by comparison.) This film would have benefited greatly from some exploration into the backstory of the policeman. The accumulated history of his sidearm, for instance, could have helped build his character. Even a glimpse into the training of firearms usage by the police in China would have meant more than a plethora of herky-jerky handheld shots or atmospheric slow-motion shots of rain dripping into a spittoon.
The remainder of the cast performs well, although the director seems at a slight loss with what to do with his actresses. There are a few brief hints of eroticism, even sexuality, but by Western standards these bits seem quaintly demure. (The immature Chinese attitude towards sexuality is presented as literally childish, when Ma Shan's eight-year-old son pens a "scandalous" essay on the difference between boys and girls.)
Had it been made in a Western setting with a Western cast, "The Missing Gun" would have been perfectly acceptable as a television show. The solution to the mystery remains unclear up until the twist ending, but the film seems to bog down before then, even at a mere 87-minute running time. As it is, the best audience for this film may be hardcore Sinophiles especially those planning a trip to southwestern China in the near future, as the cinematography makes great use of the picturesque, travelogue-ready locations.
|MARCH 27, 2003|
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