Movie Review – The Message (2009)
Now here is a movie which fires on nearly all cylinders that seems like a natural progression of classic Hollywood whodunits except that it has been updated with modern sensibilities and the fact that everyone speaks Mandarin. No matter, The Message is an incredibly taut, fascinating and sometimes excruciatingly gruesome thriller which will have audiences at the edge of their seats for nearly the entire two hour runtime. Make no mistake this might be a Mainland Chinese blockbuster but the electrifying performances and drama theatre atmosphere will win over fans no matter their mother tongue.
Co-directors Kuo-fu Chen and Qunshu Gao have fashioned what is essentially an espionage mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie except the typical roles and alignments have been reversed meaning that the detectives in this case are really the antagonists while the suspects are the heroes. Set during the WWII time period in China where huge tracks of the country were under Japanese rule the movie quickly sets up its narrative by stating that a Chinese resistance has sprung up trying to undermine the puppet Chinese government that is sympathetic to the occupying force. So far they have been successful in eliminating those who conspire with the Japanese forces and even Japanese military figures themselves.
Their success has obviously not gone unnoticed and the Japanese military in conjunction with the sympathetic Chinese who aid them set out to discover the identity of their mysterious leader named Magnum. Magnum seems to have access to sensitive information which could only be known to the puppet government’s security forces thus leading to the conclusion that there must be a mole within the service. To smoke the mole out a false message is planted to the internal security service which leads to five suspects that are brought to a remote castle by the sea in order to be investigated. One of these is the mole named Phantom and if they can discover who it is then perhaps he or she will reveal the identity and location of Magnum and thus cripple the resistance movement.
The bulk of the film revolves around the slowly escalating clever cat and mouse tactics both sides play against one another which is simply riveting to watch even though there are only five possible candidates who could be the informant. Not only does the movie take great pains in introducing each one and giving them motives for betraying the occupying forces but it allows enough time for audiences to learn about their backstories and personalities. Once the film switches entirely to the castle setting the real fun begins as the antagonists follow the torturers handbook to a T in attempting to break the solidarity of the group by pitting them against one another. Soon their internal quarrelling has them opening fighting with one another and the chances of exposing the real Phantom begin to escalate rapidly. Unbeknownst to most of them not only are their rooms bugged with listening devices but they are being physically watched all throughout the day.
Yet the Phantom manages to play tricks of his/her own to throw off the interrogators, plant false seeds of information and generally play for time since he/she realizes that time is running out and that if they do not escape or manage to send a message out of the castle that the resistance will show up and get caught in a trap. The audience never knows who the Phantom is until well into the third act and the only insight viewers are allowed is presented through cloudy onscreen text messages which highlight what the Phantom is feeling which is slightly disorientating but functions to show how the situation is rapidly beginning to spiral out of hand as time ticks by.
While not every protagonist gets equal screentime the film succeeds in building much audience empathy for their plight which heightens the emotional impact once the aggressors begin to get desperate and resort to nasty forms of torture. While some viewers will understandably blanch at the physical violence that some endure the narrative warrants such scenes both as a testament to historical fact as well as to show the lengths in which the human psyche can devolve to meet our most basic primal instincts.
Make no mistake, the antagonists gain next to sympathy here as they will do just about anything sordid imaginable to break the will of those they suspect but to the filmmakers’ credit they are far too smart to only vilify the Japanese commander since they more than show how some Chinese officers were just as traitorous and immoral.
The Message is a movie that flies mostly because the acting is phenomenal especially from the two leading ladies in Zhou Xun and Li Bing Bing who play polar opposite women. Of the two Zhou Xun has the slightly easier role since she is essentially playing an extroverted bubbly flirt which she has certainly played in other films whereas Li Bing Bing’s crack codebreaker is almost completely reserved and introverted making her inner turmoil and later humiliation much tougher to portray. As the senior ranking protagonist officer, Zhang Hanyu does his role proud striking the perfect mix of courage and bravado that never comes off as overbearingly arrogant. The antagonists though don’t fare as well simply because their parts rely more on their formal positional power rather than character traits and skills yet Huang Xiaoming as the Japanese commander is menacing enough to cause most viewers to sweat.
For a film which is essentially stuck in one physical location the production design simply drips quality with intricate style easily evoking the bygone 1930s era in just about every shot. Unfortunately, the directors sometimes get a bit carried away with the expanded budget and throw in plenty of swooping crane shots and an unnecessarily complex CG opening featuring Japanese bombers that doesn’t fit the atmosphere that the rest of the film evokes. Remove these elements out, tone down the violence and turn off the colour and the majority of the film feels seemingly ripped from the golden age of Hollywood circa 1939.
Another oddity is that there are a few hanging plot threads which are quickly introduced and just as quickly forgotten or shunted so far aside that viewers will probably wonder what ever happened to them. Chalk these small inconsistencies up to the fact that the original cut of the film clocked in at a reported three hours essentially meaning over a third of the film ended up on the cutting room floor. While I have little insight about the majority of scenes that were omitted the one obvious segment revolves around Li Ning Yu’s (Li Bing Bing) lover who it is revealed has been rounded up and stuck in jail on suspicion of his involvement in the resistance. His presence is often mentioned by Li Ning Yu and others but the film spends only a few minutes explaining this subplot making it feel like a missed opportunity.
Composer Michiru Ohshima provides a hauntingly accurate score which knows exactly when to be mellow or hit the correct emotional beats when needed and while most Western viewers will not know her anime fans will surely remember her stellar work on Full Metal Alchemist.
The Message functions well both as whodunit and as a thriller yet it also is educational enough to tackle a painful period in history that is probably not well known at all in Western countries. Sure, there is an undercurrent of propaganda that accompanies the film but it is not intrusive nor is it particularly political but it certainly touches the heart as the movie is ultimately about having the courage to stand up for your own beliefs and to steal a Spock line from Star Trek II, “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Spock and WWII China, how’s that for six degrees of separation? In the mean time, The Message is powerfully gripping cinema and comes highly recommended.
***1/2 out of ****
2009, China, Minutes, Huayi Brothers Media/Shanghai Film Group
Directed by Kuo-fu Chen, Qunshu Gao
Screenplay by Kuo-fu Chen, Jialu Zhang
Based on the novel by Jia Mai
Produced by Kuo-fu Chen, Zhongjun Wang, Zhonglei Wang
Original Music by Michiru Ohshima
Cinematography by Jake Pollock
Film Editing by Xiao Yang
Li BingBing:Li Ning Yu
Zhou Xun: Gu Xiaomeng
Wang Zhiwen: Wang Daoxiang
Huang Xiaoming: Takeda
Zhang Hanyu: Wu Zhiguo
Ying Da: Jin Shenghuo
Alec Su: Bai Xiaonian
Ni Dahong: Lao Bie
© 2011 The Galactic Pillow