Missing Gun (2002) Movie Review

“The Missing Gun” is likely to be of interest to Asian film fans mainly because it marks the debut of mainland Chinese auteur Lu Chuan, whose stunning “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol” is still gathering acclaim on the festival circuit. Although the two films are both genuine, heartfelt portrayals of common Chinese people, they are quite different in narrative and visual terms. With “The Missing Gun” Chuan employs fractured, complex storytelling, as well as a far more frenetic, stylised approach than the epic brooding of his later work. However, the same measured pace is evident and the result is an engrossing, unconventional thriller which offers a fascinating glimpse at the lives of everyday people in a small, rural Chinese village. Although there is very little in the way of action or set pieces, “The Missing Gun” is an exciting, gripping gem which proves that not all Asian cop films need be packed full of car chases and explosions.

The film begins as village policeman Ma (Wen Jiang, director of the Cannes-prize winning “Devils on the Doorstep” and star of Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum”) wakes after a drunken night at his sister’s wedding to find his gun missing. In Mainland China, firearm possession is strictly regulated, and so the loss immediately lands Ma with the threat of being fired if it is not recovered. To make matters worse, his childhood sweetheart turns up dead shortly thereafter, apparently killed with his gun, a fact which makes him the prime suspect. With increasing desperation, Ma tries to piece together the events of the night before and solve the murder, a task made more difficult by the ever changing stories of the other villagers.

“The Missing Gun” starts with a frantic, handheld camera-shot tour of the village, and for three quarters of the film at least, the pace never slackens, as Chuan (who also scripted) keeps things moving by throwing innumerable obstacles in the path of his ill-fated protagonist. Although some of these obstacles prove to be anecdotal, and at times even whimsical, they give the film a realistic, grounded feel lacking in other thrillers, and as a result, Ma’s quest is far more sympathetic and believable. His sense of exasperation and frustration is shared by the viewer, and there is a genuine sense of excitement with each new clue and possible lead.

Chuan goes to some pains to imbue “The Missing Gun” with the smallest details of everyday village life, from Ma’s domestic situation, to the inscrutable attitudes of his superiors. These elements invigorate the story, filling it with quirky characters whose personal motivations and goals help to make the various plot twists seem more acceptable and less convoluted. The realistic air also benefits the film by giving a sense of danger and tension, as the viewer is constantly reminded of the damage that can be done with a single bullet.

Of course, such a contemplative approach means there is no real gunplay on show, and as such, some viewers may be disappointed by the lack of conventional action, as “The Missing Gun” is in many ways the polar opposite of similarly plotted Hong Kong films such as Johnny To’s “P.T.U”. However, Chuan’s film is equally, if not more exciting thanks to his tight direction and compelling plot, and is all the more thrilling for not relying on the usual genre cliché.

Visually, the film is often breathtaking, with Chuan employing a number of striking techniques, including some fast editing, inventive camera work and well placed surreal imagery. Through this, he breathes an exciting vitality into the traditional trappings of the village and the surrounding countryside, portraying them in a way most uncommon in Mainland Chinese cinema.

The only real problem with “The Missing Gun” comes in the final act, as Chuan lets the pace drop off, and fails to provide a satisfactory climax. Although the film does end in a soberly realistic fashion, and one which is in keeping with what has come before, it feels a little too out of left field, and lacking in the cathartic nature demanded by the high tension and involvement which the narrative has generated up to this point. However, since Chuan wisely keeps the proceedings to a lean ninety minutes, this is a relatively minor criticism, and one which should not dissuade viewers from seeking out the film, which is a worthy debut by one of the most interesting voices in contemporary Chinese cinema.

Chuan Lu (director) / Chuan Lu (screenplay)
CAST: Wen Jiang …. Ma Shan
Shi Liang …. Zhou Xiao Gang

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