We’ve all heard about the efforts of the resistance in destabilizing the invading side in the Sino-Japanese war and the struggles with the Third Reich. Executively-produced by Feng Xiaogang and directed by Chen Kuo-fu and Gao Qunshu, “The Message” (2009) is a polished Chinese war thriller based on the novel “Leng Sheng” by Mai Jia. The film is about a spy hunt during the 2nd Sino-Japanese war when the Japanese has occupied several major areas in China.
China, 1942. President Wang is the figurehead of a puppet government placed in power by the Japanese. This ‘puppet government’ has placed Chang Kai Shek into a corner that has resistance fighters forced to resort to assassinations of Japanese and Chinese authority figures. The assassinations seemed to be traced back to a mysterious figure called Magnum and the Japanese determine that the leak could be coming from the Counter-Insurgency center that is made up of a five-person group and headed by Captain Wu (Zhang Hanyu). The Japanese intelligence led by Colonel Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) and Chief Wang (Wang Zhiwen) hatches a scheme that would expose “Magnum” and to crush the resistance.
The five-person group made up of Gu Xiamen (beauteous Zhao Xun, The Banquet), Lt. Bai (Alec Su), lead code breaker Li Ningyu (Li Bing Bing), Jin (Ying Da) and Captain Wu are summoned to an isolated Japanese fortress and will be kept under guard until they manage to plush out the spy called “Phantom” as time slowly passes that could mean the end for the resistance…
The film’s premise is very simple and I think it successfully made use of its aces well. The film is extremely well-acted, the cinematography very impressive, it has high production values with great set designs and accurate costumes for this period. One can expect no less from producer Feng Xiaogang, as he has made his name in directing Chinese costume epics. The film’s story revolves around a limited number of individuals confined in an enclosed space as they try to back-stab, lead their captors on and to manipulate the events to further suit their machinations. It was a little shocking to see how these five people was able to co-exist in their own workplace, but I guess the threat of torture brings the worst out of people. The film is a simple cat and mouse game between the spy and the Japanese intelligence, but the direction is kept tight and taut to generate that feeling of suspense to keep its viewers on their toes.
The film’s main strengths come from the performers; the cast was effective in generating the needed feeling of dread and anger, as the viewer is left wondering who the spy really is. The direction did manage to bring opposing feelings as I wanted the spy to get away and yet I was concerned with the innocents caught in this game of cat and mouse. Zhao Xun plays the party girl who gets caught in this web of deceit and schemes; her natural seductive charm just comes across easily. Zhao can crab the viewer’s attention no doubt and she is matched by Li Bing Bing who is just so sympathetic as Li Ningyu. Huang Xiaoming and Zhang Hanyu were also very convincing as the two clashing military officers. Supporting characters were also great as for a film like this to succeed, the tragedy of losing innocent life has to feel real. Ying Da and Alec Su represented the fears of the innocent while Wang Zhiwen is the military man caught in the middle. I also felt a little put off with the Chinese characters who seem to support their country’s oppression, but I guess everyone needs to make a living.
The film’s supposed real events may have taken place about 60 years ago, but there is nothing simple to it when you observe the polished cinematography, modern film techniques and spiffy camera work. The film also has some intense scenes of torture but most of the scenes of the violence against women were toned down and mostly hinted at. (This is after all a mainland China production so it is ‘safe’). There was however some extended scenes with needles that can bring some viewers to grind their teeth that they may prove a little hard to take for most casual viewers.
“The Message” is a highly commercial thriller that has some elements and twists that may prove a little predictable, but what it fails in, the movie was easily bailed out because of the powerful performances of the leads. This is a film that portrays Chinese espionage in a flag-waving manner that somewhat dulls its impact despite the fact that I thought the characters were really made to be heroic. It does manage to keep its momentum as a suspenseful, entertainingly taut thriller that channels its power through the acting and the direction despite some expected patriotic leanings. Director Chen Kuo-fu and Gao Qunshu’s creation is a success but given the power of its all-star cast, expectations may not be entirely met. Still, “The Message” is a lot better than most thrillers albeit a little overcooked to the trained cinema fan.
Highly Recommended! [4-Stars]
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A Japanese intelligence officer and his Chinese collaborator stooges are trying to find a mole in their organization who is working for the Chinese resistance and assassinating all their top people. They narrow it down to five Chinese staff in one communications office and arrange to get them to a secluded mountain mansion for an investigation...