A Mainland movie with a compelling storyline, great acting, good directing and even a little bit of wincing? If you like the sound of that, then “The Message” might just be the movie for you.
“The Message” takes place back in the days of the Japanese
occupation of China (1942 Nanking to be precise), when a resistance movement is taking up a secret underground war against the collaborationist Government and their Japanese puppet masters. An agent known as The Phantom is highly sought after by the Japanese, along with the leader of the resistance – the Magnum. When a small bit of intelligence enables a somewhat beleaguered Japanese intelligence agent to pass some false information, those 5 individuals who have seen the fake information are taken to a foreboding castle, in order to work out which one of them is indeed The Phantom.
The 5 members of the counter-insurgency team that have been exposed to the information are a mixed bunch: a fey Lieutenant (Alec Su) who is ummm under the protection of his Chinese commander; middle manager Jin (Ying Da) who is merely in his role for an easy life due to his familial connections; the somewhat aggressive Captain Wu Zhiguo (Zhang Hanyu), a war hero; socialite Gu Xiaomeng (Zhou Xun) who likes to party and point fingers; and the head codebreaker Li Ningyu (Li Bing-Bing) whose actor boyfriend seems to be under similar suspicions.
This is not the deepest of movies, it is a crowd pleasing, easy on the eye, and exciting thriller. Saying that, it is also a little extreme in places – there are some scenes of torture that whilst not graphic, certainly make this somewhat uncomfortable to watch.
The performances are great all round, and to my mind this is the most pleasing performance I have seen from Zhou Xun – I often find her a little cold, but here she manages to display a warmth and fun (at least in the opening exchanges) that sometimes I feel she lacks.
The film also has a lovely style – almost David Fincher-esque at times, mixing some lavish sets with some clever little tricks to do with the coded messages. My only annoyance was really with the score – it is constantly bombastic (obviously to rack up the tension), but sometimes this bombast is a little overdone, or even misplaced, and I have to admit, I ended up turning the volume down.
It is also interestingly not overly Chinese – by this i mean this film could very easily be set in any wartime or occupied age – this could be Vichy France quite easily, and the reversal of rooting for the hidden spy, whilst mostly concentrating on the “bad” guys is a well deployed device.
There are some issues with the structure, suspects are taken off the table very quickly, leaving some very obvious candidates for the spy far too early, and more experienced Chinese film viewers will realise that the really big stars are likely to be there at the end, which does take a away a little from the overall mystery.
But overall I thought it was a fantastic watch, and was actually far more subtle in the pro-Chinese flag waving than many of late.