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Film Review: The Silent War

2012-08-30 09:36:34        Chinese Films

Genre: Period spy drama

2012, colour, 2.35:1, 118 mins

Directed by Alan Mak, Felix Chong

Actress Zhou Xun is the only reason to watch this clumsy, poorly written spy drama. Asian events at best.


Hong Kong, 1949. Zhang Xuening (Zhou Xun), agent 200 with the communist 701 Bureau, receives a coded telegram from Shanghai that the US is planning to make a Chinese missile engineer, codenamed Sparrow (Jacob Cheung), "disappear". Sparrow, who previously worked in the US, is now back in Hong Kong and is planning to defect to Beijing the next day. At a farewell party for him that night, Xuening spirits Sparrow away. At 701 Bureau's HQ in southern China, Xuening is instructed by its head, known as Devil (Wang Xuebing), to bring back from Shanghai a famous piano tuner, Luo Saner, whose acute sense of pitch could help the bureau's radio-monitoring division find the frequencies now being used by KMT agents for military information. In Shanghai, she rescues instead Luo's blind assistant, He Bing (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who has a much more highly developed sense of hearing, and brings him back to 701's HQ. He Bing manages to discover over 70 radio channels in a couple of days, which provide intelligence that KMT agents are gathering in China's major cities, including Shanghai. He Bing develops a liking for Xuening, though she has feelings for her boss, Devil. When 701 agent Wu Chang (Dong Yuan) is killed in Shanghai while following KMT agent Zhang Guoxiang (Lam Wai), Devil suspects there are still some undiscovered radio channels being used by the KMT for advanced codes. He Bing finds them, and learns that the head of the whole KMT spying operation is codenamed Chongqing. While Xuening is away on a long mission in Shanghai, He Bing marries Shen Jing (Mavis Fan), a decipher clerk whose father is head of the KMT's Deciphering Unit. When Xuening returns, she brings with her a doctor who can cure He Bing's blindness. Soon afterwards she leaves for a deadly mission in Shanghai, to track down Chongqing.


ZHOU Xun, who's gradually developed into one of China's classiest actresses, is the only reason (not for the first time in her career) to watch the otherwise clumsily directed and poorly written spy drama The Silent War. On paper the movie sounds very promising: Zhou teams again with Hong Kong's Tony LEUNG Chiu-wai, with whom she recently struck sparks in The Great Magician; the script is adapted from a 2006 novel by Mainland writer MAI Jia, author of the original book from which the spy drama The Message (2009), also starring Zhou, was adapted; and the writer-directors are Hong Kong's Alan MAK and Felix CHONG (Infernal Affairs (2002), Overheard (2009)). So much for the theory.

In practice, almost nothing works. Mak and Chong effectively ditch the original novel — already the basis for a 40-part TV drama, Plot Against (2005), directed by actor LIU Yunlong — in favour of a clumsily constructed drama mixing code-breaking, romance and action but almost completely ignoring the political background of the early days of the PRC. Leung, already given a totally unsuitable voice in his Mandarin redubbing, is miscast in a role that's half-jokey and half just twiddling radio dials. And the whole movie is plastered with a score by Hong Kong's Comfort CHAN (Infernal Affairs, Bodyguards and Assassins) that is either overstated or simply inappropriate when it should be developing tension or mystery.

The rest of the Hong Kong crew's contributions are so-so at best (including action by Dion LAM), with only Anthony PUN's grey, shadowy images of the code-breaking HQ having any atmosphere. Even setpieces, such as Leung's character being followed through the streets as his ears tune into peripheral sounds, fail to develop much tension, and the technical side of his spy job — a key plot component, one would have thought — is left fuzzy at best, all the more surprising in a film by the makers of the acute surveillance drama Overheard.

Aside from Zhou, whose cool performance dominates from the start (and earns the movie an extra point), Mainland actor WANG Xuebing gets few chances in the script to make much of an impression as her equally cool boss, and the attraction between the two remains largely theoretical. Taiwan's Mavis FAN (About Love (2004)) comes over likeably but also gets few scenes in which to develop her character, the daughter of a KMT code-breaker who's ludicrously been given a high-security job as a communist code-breaker. It's just one of many loose ends in the lazy script by Mak and Chong, two film-makers whose chequered career since Infernal Affairs has been given more than enough benefit of the doubt.

Source: Film Business Asia

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