Another film that I have been looking forward to for a good while, heralding yet another appearance from Tony Leung during another break from filming the probably-not-going-to-see-it-this year “The Grandmasters”. The pedigree is further enhanced by Zhou Xun, who rarely lets me down. Adapted from a novel from “The Chinese John Le Carre”, Mia Jia (who also penned the original book from which we got the excellent Zhou Xun vehicle “The Message”), and Directed by “Infernal Affairs” duo Felix Chong and Alan Mak, this one really does have quite the pedigree… but will it live up to my expectations?
“The Silent War” is set in 1950’s Shanghai, where the Chinese Communist Parties Secret Service (codenamed 701) are desperately trying to intercept and decode the secret messages transmitted by the Kuomintang opposition. Secret Agent Zhang Xuening (codenamed 200, played by the lovely Zhou Xun) is tasked by her boss Guo Xingzhong (codenamed Devil, played by Wang Xuebing) to co-opt a famous Piano Tuner to assist them in tracking down the radio frequencies that have suddenly changed and have become undetectable. Zhang soon realises that actually it is the blind assistant He Bing (Tony Leung) who is actually the skilled one here, and she presses him into the service of his country. He Bing proves very adept at his task, and also finds time to fall heavily for Zhang. She may also have affections for him, but also for Guo, but of course this is a time of duty , not of the heart. Codebreaker Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) fills out our little love quadrangle, falling for He Bing, despite his obvious obsession with his handler. Meanwhile, there is a Civil War going on, and the pressure is on He Bing to find and decipher these messages, especially once Zhang is back out under cover looking for a mysterious enemy agent.
Wow, what a disappointment.
But, let me start positively. Zhou Xun is utterly fabulous, being both charming and flirtatious when her role as a spy requires as much, but also a driven and patriotic woman, who obviously struggles with the rawer emotions that the men in her professional life bring out in her. Tony Leung is perfectly fine as the blind He Bing (and he knows how to play blind as we saw in “The Sound of Colours”), but as we have seen recently, it does feel a little as if he is dialling his performance in. He manages to make his character a mix of charming and at times somewhat unlikeable, but for some reason I never really connected with him, it felt more like a caricature rather than a fully fledged person.
The film is also beautifully shot, with amazing period detail. Also, the film tries its best to add some visual flair to the somewhat non-visual concept of tapping Morse Code radio messages. One sequence in particular is excellent, where He Bing describes all the unique tics of a number of enemy operators, working out their locations and gender and mental state.
Sadly though, despite one really strong performance, and great production and design, the film pretty much fails on every other level.
As a love story, the film is hamstrung by its commitment to the wider story. Other than meaningful glances and extended periods of people not saying things to each other, not once does any character express any kind of emotional felling towards another directly. Sure, some grand gestures are made (spoilers are going to stop me exploring this too far), and everyone is very sad when one of our lead characters fails to make it to the final credits. But outside of the mechanics of the plot, at no time did I feel any emotional attachment to any of our characters or their fates.
As a Spy Story, it just doesn’t have the necessary thrills, not does it give us the requisite twists and turns we might expect from such a story. We get a beginning and a relatively effective end, but everything that happens in-between seems to be glossed over. And whilst the Morse Code parts of the plot are reasonably well realised, they do not make for terribly riveting or exciting cinema.
My gut feel is that this is an adaptation of a complex novel that has had the intricacies ripped out, in order to give people that are aware of the source material a visual version that hits all the keynotes of the plot, but fails to give them the soul of the story. The most obvious example I can give is the use of Mavis Fan’s character. She turns up, halfway through the film, and whilst she has a terribly interesting back-story, absolutely nothing is done with it. It takes 3 minutes to tell, yet has no functional purpose either in he relationships with other characters, nor does it add anything to the plot.
“The Silent War” is a good looking film. And has one very excellent performance. Other than that though, I really would have a hard time giving this one much more than the most mild of recommendations. If you want a Mia Jia adaption that also has a great Zhou Xun performance, but also contains other great performances, along with a sense of drama and danger? Go find a copy of “The Message”.