Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"The Message" review (4)

Golden Age Hollywood meets Chinese period melodrama in "The Message," a full-bore WWII spy whodunit that plays like an Asian cross between "Clue" and "Now, Voyager." Laden with homages to classic Warner Bros. dramas and tips of the hat to mystery writers like Agatha Christie, this star-laden monster-mash will prove too rich a mixture for most Western palates. But for those prepared to go the distance (and fans of popular Asian cinema), it's an exhilarating, intensely cinematic ride. The reportedly $7 million pic swamped Chinese theaters Sept. 30 and took a hefty $10 million in its opening weekend.

Script by Taiwanese writer-director Chen Kuo-fu ("Double Vision," "The Personals"), who co-helmed with bright mainland Chinese talent Gao Qunshu ("Tokyo Trial," "Old Fish"), is liberally adapted from the 2007 Mai Jia novel that formed the last in a trilogy of stories about WWII code-breakers. Aside from its star-heavy cast and fine production values, the pic undoubtedly benefited locally from Mai's recent fame with a successful TV adaptation of the second book in the trilogy.

Opening reel -- which starts with an aerial swoop-down on October 1942 Nanjing, where the invading Japanese have set up a puppet Chinese government to draw support away from the official KMT one -- contains a mass of information and character introductions that's hard to digest on a first viewing. In short order, a puppet-government lackey (Duan Yihong) is shot by a female rebel (Liu Weiwei), who's later caught and tortured for info.

Col. Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) discovers there's a rebel mole inside his own counterinsurgency center. The mole could be one of five people, all of whom he invites to a remote mansion in the mountains for what becomes a classic locked-room whodunit.

The suspects are cool but foxy decoding department head Li Ningyu (Li Bingbing), the best code-breaker in the business; administrative officer Gu Xiaomeng (Zhou Xun), a spoiled rich girl who arrives with a massive hangover; military office section chief Wu Zhiguo (Zhang Hanyu), a tough, battle-scarred soldier; officer Bai Xiaonian (Taiwan's Alec Su), a flamboyant homosexual; and section chief Jin Shenguo (comedian Ying Da), a bluff, portly vet.

The host of the meeting is Commissioner Wang (Wang Zhiwen), a half-psychotic Chinese turncoat. But it's Takeda who's the real host, telling the five suspects that no one is leaving until the mole, codenamed Phantom, is unmasked.

The subsequent hour, entirely set in the European-style baronial residence and its adjoining torture chamber, is a classic potboiler mystery-thriller, as the suspects quarrel, scheme and are picked off one by one by Takeda. Labyrinthine plot is both clever and highly unlikely, but realism is hardly the issue in what is basically an old-fashioned multistar vehicle in which the thesps strut their stuff.

Pic is billed locally as China's first wartime spy movie, which is not exactly true. But it's certainly the first done in such a lavish style, and with so many cross-cultural cinematic references.

Some auds may be troubled by the copious torture sequences, which, though they rely more on suggestion than graphic visuals, are especially squirm-inducing in the case of the women. Their dramatic overdrive harks back to a whole tradition in Chinese cinema (both mainland and offshore) of Japanese nasties doing horrid things to Chinese patriots.

The petite Zhou brings her usual gravel-voiced vampiness to the character of Gu, but Li, as the cool codebreaker, quietly trumps her in the acting stakes. Hot new star Huang, speaking slightly accented Mandarin, is excellent as the sadistic, increasingly desperate Takeda, while the experienced Zhang and Wang face off among the older male players.

CG effects, done in China, are smoothly showy, deliberately evoking a '30s/'40s look, and costuming by Hong Kong ace Tim Yip ("Red Cliff," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Wu Baoling is as rich as the score by Michiru Oshima and lensing by Taiwan-based Jake Pollock ("Yang Yang").

Reportedly, Gao handled most of the actual direction while Chen focused more on script and producer duties. Pic has no overriding visual style, swinging between sweeping crane shots and handheld closeups -- disappointing, given the rich production design, but adding to the film's restless energy.

Huayi has promised a three-hour version on DVD, which could help to fill in some of the backstories -- including that of Gu's lover (Natori Masayuki), only referenced in some confusing flashbacks. Chinese title literally translates as "The Sound of the Wind," but also means "rumors" or "information."

Camera (color, widescreen), Jake Pollock; editor, Xiao Yang; music, Michiru Oshima; art director, Xiao Haihang; costume designers, Tim Yip, Wu Baoling; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Danrong; visual effects, Wonder Star VFX; visual effects supervisor, Hu Xuan; assistant director, Zhang Lidong. Reviewed at Megabox 8, Beijing, Oct. 6, 2009. (Also in Pusan Film Festival -- closer.) Running time: 114 MIN.

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