Film Review: “The Silent War” (2012)
The Bottom Line: “Do you know what 701 is?”
Cinematography: Anthony Pun
In the Hong Kong cinema scene these days, joint projects with the mainland Chinese film industry seem to be more the rule than an exception. Although there have always been connections and collaborations between the two, the partnership has grown much stronger since Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China in 1997. This film, which features acting by Tony Leung (a big HK star) and Zhou Xun (a major Chinese actress and singer who also has broken into the HK and Hollywood film industries) and direction by Felix Chong (major HK writer/directors), is an example of such projects. An espionage thriller set in the 1950s, it is an adaptation of a novel by Mai Jia, the pen name of a major Chinese author.
Plot Summary (adapted from reviews by The Straits Times (Singapore) and LoveHKFilm)
Tony Leung plays He Bing, a man who was blinded as a boy (by Japanese soldiers during World War II) and subsequently developed an excellent sense of hearing. Since he has perfect pitch, he works for a philandering piano tuner in Shanghai. He is recruited by Zhang Xuening (Zhou Xun), an agent of 701, an intelligence unit of the newly established China Republic government. His mission: to detect the frequencies on which the enemy, a vague threat that gradually emerges as agents of the Kuomintang who have infiltrated the government, is broadcasting sensitive information. Bing finds the frequencies quickly, making him an instant hero at 701. However, he is less interested in being a hero than he is in winning the affections of Xuening. When she remains cool to his advances, Bing befriends pretty codebreaker Shen Jing (Mavis Fan). Although Xuening now observes Bing from the sidelines, a mutual attraction lingers between the two. A second act event kills further romantic tension, and the narrative shifts to surveillance spy thrills. Via signals intelligence, Bing must ferret out five enemy spies in Shanghai, especially their leader, who is code-named “Chungking.” Xuening is tasked with the actual field work. With Bing’s help, will she be able to identify and neutralize Chungking and associates?
This is a good espionage thriller with a lot of potential, but it douses some of the flames it kindles in the first act by burying the sexual tension between Bing and Xuening. However, it makes up for this error with an action-packed third act. I think the movie spent too much time showcasing Bing’s unusual talent for finding radio frequencies and not enough on the relationships between characters, especially given the level of acting talent in the cast. Understandably, the movie privileges acts of Chinese patriotism over relationships between individuals, but this might not play as well to Western viewers as it might to a Chinese audience. Nevertheless, it’s worth a viewing, unless you do not like reading subtitles.
Film Facts (via IMDB)
- MPAA rating: unrated (Other Certifications — Australia:M (2012) / Hong Kong:IIB / Singapore:PG)
- Language: Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin, with English subtitles available)
- Runtime: 120 min
- Sound: Dolby Digital
- Color: Color
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1