The Silent War
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhou Xun, Wang Xuebing, Mavis Fan Hsiao-hsuan
Director: Alan Mak Siu-fai and Felix Chong Man-keung
Category: IIA (Cantonese)
'Have eyes but see not,' says He Bing (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, above left with Wang Xuebing and Zhou Xun), The Silent War's blind protagonist in one of his many barbed put-downs on the sighted characters around him.
It's a harbinger of his heroics as the film unfolds, as his extraordinary hearing helps the Chinese Communist Party's intelligence service locate the Kuomintang's radio signals as the Chinese Civil War draws to its close in the late 1940s.
The Silent War could have been a scintillating piece about espionage in a complex political age but it is actually a shallow thriller about spies and codebreakers.
Lacking in morally compromised characters, exciting set-pieces and awe-inducing twists - things that Alan Mak Siu-fai and Felix Chong Man-keung thrived on in Infernal Affairs, Overheard and even The Lost Bladesman, their thoughtful take on the much-remade Romance of the Three Kingdoms - Silent looks dangerously like simplistic propaganda, with the key premise being the communists' victory over the subversive schemes of Chiang Kai-shek's rogues as the Kuomintang attempt a last-ditch effort to derail the perceived progress of the budding People's Republic.
Even the film's title is problematic: with the story revolving around rival radio messages, the war being fought on screen is more invisible than soundless - and the film's opening credit sequence says as much, as the camera swirls amid codebreakers seated inside the communists' underground headquarters to a soundtrack mixing stirring music and electro-acoustic chatter.
After being recruited into the communists' ranks by agent Zhang Xuening (Zhou), He is asked to perform feats that are barely rendered as difficult and complicated on screen - after twiddling a few knobs he's done.
The filmmakers have decided to spend more time in developing the love triangle between Zhang, He and Shen Jing (Mavis Fan Hsiao-hsuan), a surveillance officer designed to provide comforting company for He. It's perhaps instructive that the filmmakers-screenwriters have made Shen an estranged daughter of one of the Kuomintang's major spymasters.
Rather than being viewed with suspicion and banished to the margins of society, she's given work within the communists' secret service apparatus. What could be construed as a sign of magnanimity and unbiased recognition of talent simply looks like illogic - something that could be fatal for a thriller. Even without regarding the barely-disguised leitmotifs at play here, The Silent War falls flat in its poorly executed mission to provide exciting entertainment.
The Silent War opens on August 9