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1942, Nanjing (Nanking). Following a series of assassination attempts on officials of the Japanese-controlled puppet government, the Japanese spy chief gathers a group of suspects in a mansion house for questioning. A tense game of "cat and mouse" ensues as the Chinese code-breaker attempts to send out a crucial message while protecting his/her own identity. Written by
For those anticipating Lu Chuan's epic Nanking movie City of Life and Death which will premiere this week, you might also want to check out The Message, now playing in cinemas and also set during the turbulent days of the Sino-Japanese war in China in the early 40s. While Lu Chuan's film tried to portray history through an objective lens, lending to it a documentary-like feel, The Message showed how Chinese cinema has grown to tap upon those dark days to create what would be an extremely well made tale of espionage, with insurgent and spies working effortlessly to bring misery to their Japanese occupiers.
Based upon the novel by Jia Mai, which Chen Kuo-fu has adapted the screenplay and shared directorial responsibilities with Gan Qunshu, The Message is a top notch tale of bluff versus bluff and dwindling trust, where a group of Counter-Insurgency Chinese troopers got called into a mansion for close interrogation, because one of them, codenamed The Phantom, is supposedly working for the resistance. It's curious times because you have the puppet Chinese government and their troops, the Japanese officers seeking to weed out traitors, and the resistance who have so far struck plenty of fear amongst the Japanese ranks because of their Basterds-like brutality, which the opening few minutes would let you have a taste of.
In essence it's a process of elimination, and while it is engaging on many levels - the story, the "whodunnit", the opulent and richly designed sets and costumes, swooping camera-work that will leave you breathless and that pulsating musical score, it somehow felt a little dragged out in its mid-section as it lingered on playing everything out in relative sequential order, and looked as if it's headed for a very straight-forward espionage tale in smoking out the spy amongst their midst, with some ingenuity of scheming, counter-scheming and baiting involved of course.
It's also because we tend to equate the biggest stars here, Zhou Xun and Li Bing Bing, as probably the most highly suspicious, and as the story continue to develop along that line, which is why the film had this unfair sense of familiarity going against it, which doesn't do justice to the film. What more, the inter-titles that frequently appear, continue to provide one clue too many as to whether the Japanese have got their man, or not. And that's probably the reason why some films work a lot better when it's a bunch of competent unknowns so that star power (naturally to attract an audience) doesn't factor in manipulating you.
However, it is the finale arc that elevated this film with its satisfying conclusion of the dangerous environment that resistance fighters often put themselves into. History has its fair share of tales on bravery and heroism, and I'm game to see a lot more of such war/espionage films coming out of the Chinese mainland, especially those with a solid story backed by excellent production values such as this one. If through films one can exorcise demons of the past, often through some form of escapism and fantasy, then perhaps the time has come for Chinese cinema to do just that, and to wow audiences around the world as well with universal themes.
The Message clearly is that it's highly recommended, and Hollywood better watch out!
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