Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Message review (6)

A fortnight has barely passed and The Founding of a Republic is, amazingly, no longer even the month’s most ludicrous Chinese blockbuster to rouse our nationalistic spirit. Directed by Chen Kuofu (Double Vision) and Gao Qunshu (Old Fish), The Message has been billed by its local distributors as “the first billion-dollar budget Chinese-language spy movie in sixty years”. One gets the sense that the sky’s the limit if that budget had been halved – considering how the stylistic overkill of its digitally animated sequences has distracted from the actors’ genuine performances in this otherwise hugely satisfying mystery thriller.

The year is 1942, and five officials working in traitor Wang Jingwei’s puppet government – among them an expert code-breaker Li (Li Bingbing), her close friend and feisty associate Gu (Zhou Xun), and violent military captain Wu (Zhang Hanyu) – are summoned and held captive for interrogation by Japanese colonel Takeda (Huang Xiaoming), with one in the group believed to be a resistance infiltrator codenamed Phantom. On the other side of the battle, the unidentified, fiercely patriotic mole has to get word outside to abort a misconceived mission, the execution of which will likely spell the end of the resistance force.

Set largely within the walls of a spooky castle on a cliff by the seaside, which looks about as realistic as Xanadu in Citizen Kane, The Message quickly ditches its larger historical backdrop and reveals itself to be an excellent spin of the traditional country-house whodunit. Without resorting to gadget-flashing actions, this espionage film does nonetheless have its fair share of eye-openers, featuring sadistic methods of torture and humiliation in its interrogation scenes that would be equally at home in your average exploitation flick.

What impresses most, however, is the film’s collectively outstanding cast, many of whose roles are rendered with complex psychological shadings. It’s hard not to be touched by the lengths that the resistance fighters are willing to go to, all in the name of loyalty to their cause. Bearing in mind that this is a Mainland Chinese production set at the height of the Sino-Japanese War (which is a way of saying that we all know who the story’s ultimate winner will be), it’s all the more remarkable how The Message, with its gripping character drama, still manages to thoroughly engage and fascinate.

Edmund Lee


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