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The Silent War

  The Silent War

Zhou Xun and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai fight a Silent War.

Chinese: 聽風者  
Year: 2012  
Director: Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong Man-Keung
Producer: Ronald Wong Ban, Charley Zhao
Writer: Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong Man-Keung, Mai Jia (original novel)
Cast:

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhou Xun, Wang Xuebing, Mavis Fan Hsiao-Shuan, Dong Yong, Lam Wai, Jacob Cheung Chi-Leung, Sin Lap-Man, Carrie Ng Ka-Lai, Henry Fong Ping, Bai Ru, Gan Tingting

The Skinny: Mainland spy thriller from Alan Mak and Felix Chong is competent, unchallenging and unremarkable entertainment. Zhou Xun lifts the whole thing above average but the detached concept and lack of real tension drag the whole thing back down. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is amusing and incongruous in the lead role. Only so-so.
 
Review
by Kozo:

Tony Leung does the blind man thing for a third time in Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s espionage thriller The Silent War, based on the popular novel “Plot Against” by writer Mai Jia. Leung’s previous two sight-impaired turns were in Wong Jing’s formulaic Blind Romance and Joe Ma’s fanciful Sound of Colors, so Silent War automatically seems more exciting. However, enlarged expectations should be tempered. Despite being about spies and subterfuge, Silent War is only marginally thrilling, with a detached concept and few active set pieces. It’s not all negatives; the story features an interesting character dynamic and a great romantic set-up, and Zhou Xun is very good as the female lead. Silent War doesn’t live up to immediate expectations, but it does provide sufficient if unremarkable entertainment. Hey, they can’t all be classics.

It’s 1949 and senior investigator Zhang Xue-Ning (Zhou Xun) joins the 701, a government unit tasked with stopping an “invisible enemy”. Xue-Ning fails to recruit noted piano tuner Luo San-Er (Pal Sin) to the 701, but she ends up finding someone better: Luo San-Er’s blind assistant Bing (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who has ears that would make a dog jealous. Bing doesn’t need a cane and is able to move through spaces by “hearing” them. He can also discern a greater range of frequencies than normal, and can even separate minute sounds from the roaring din. Bing is basically Marvel Comics’ Daredevil working for the People’s Liberation Army, and is soon drafted into the 701 to find hidden enemy radio frequencies used to transmit Morse Code. With his super ears, Bing finds the frequencies quickly, making him an instant China hero. However, Bing cares less for heroism than he does for Xue-Ning’s attentions. He pines ardently for his spy handler, but she remains cool to his attentions.

Bing befriends pretty codebreaker Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) while Xue-Ning watches from the sidelines. But a mutual attraction lingers between Bing and Xue-Ning. Surely their shared passion will emerge as their spy work becomes more tense and treacherous? Sorry, that’s not the story of Silent War, which is sad because this hidden romance may be the film’s most tantalizing subplot, and Zhou Xun and Tony Leung bring it, each in their own way. Leung turns in a playful if jarring star performance; Bing is knowing and snarky but also loyal and sensitive, and his affection for Xue-Ning comes out in cute fits of lovelorn petulance. Meanwhile, Xue-Ning can only hide her feelings, and Zhou gets across her character’s longing with wordless expressions and conflicted gazes that could carry whole films. Repressed feelings, devious spies, potential love triangles or rectangles – there’s enough here for a crackling romantic thriller or at least a lighter, less sexy version of Lust, Caution.

No go. The filmmakers kill further romantic tension with a second act event, resigning the narrative to surveillance spy thrills. The storyline remains interesting, as Bing must ferret out five enemy spies in Shanghai, with one IDed as a big cheese called “Chungking.” Xue-Ning is tasked with the actual field work, but her espionage mostly involves playing mahjong with suspected Chungking candidates. One potent plot twist later, the film is back to its radio-centered tension, with Bing frantically listening to static to find the bad guys. This tension-via-eavesdropping is sometimes entertaining – the film has fun with the ridiculous idea that Bing can actually discern someone’s character and personality by listening to them transmit Morse Code – but it’s not enough to sustain a two-hour spy drama from opening to climax. Many teased subplots (adultery, betrayers in the 701) are avoided, possibly because this is a film about loyal PLA spies, and portraying them as morally dubious or corrupt would likely be frowned upon by SARFT.

With surprise and more complex emotions tabled Silent War can only satisfy as a standard and unchallenging commercial film, albeit one with big movie stars and a classier-than-usual production. Alan Mak and Felix Chong continue their streak of competent co-directed films, each providing some measure of entertainment while rarely achieving more. The Lost Bladesman and the Overheard films are prime examples of the duo’s issues, the films possessing great situations and ideas but only so-so execution. Mak and Chong are currently better writers than they directors, and lack the directorial chops to transmit their ambition or deeper ideas to an audience. Silent War hits the requisite narrative beats, but without greater tension or stronger emotion, the film falls well below recent period spy films Lust, Caution and The Message (which was also based on a Mai Jia novel).

Silent War ends with some flag-waving People’s Liberation Army hoo-hah demonstrating patriotic pride and should-be stirring pathos. The rush of uniforms, flags and saluting may be a bit too much for detractors of “Main Melody” films, but Silent War isn’t really propaganda. The film never demonizes the bad guys – the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-Shek – which is wise because Chinese vs. Chinese stories aren’t the easiest sell to a Pan-China audience. That said, without any ideology behind the characters, the film loses an opportunity to affect those less initiated. Despicable villains may be bad for international sales, but good vs. evil can create stronger stakes for people who don’t automatically fall into the PLA rank-and-file. But in a world where giant robots are the most bankable international stars, making your bad guys as generic as possible is pretty much the way to go. Hey, China filmmakers, here’s your next blockbuster movie idea: China versus Aliens. (Kozo, 2012)

 
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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