If China has an NSA equivalent in the 1950s, then perhaps this secret unit codenamed 701 may be it, with its huge army of operatives employed in listening, code making, code breaking, and having field agents out there move in when the intelligence war is won, and time for some real action. Based on the novel "Plot Against" by Mai Jia, writer-directors Felix Chong and Alan Mak combine forces once again to weave an intricate spy thriller that's full of their usual innovativeness employed in storytelling, and reunites them with leading man Tony Leung, after their project Confession of Pain.
I can imagine how they could have enticed Tony to pick up the role. After all, one of the most memorable sequences in Infernal Affairs has Tony Leung engaged in a back channel communication with the police through morse code. And morse code takes centerstage here, with the directors perhaps having challenged the actor an opportunity to brush up his skills. Sure I may not understand morse, and nor can I vouch for the authenticity of what's being communicated in the film, and if my dad was still around he could decipher all the dits and the dats in a jiffy. In any case, any film with the thespian on board is worth a second look, and here, the filmmakers threw another gauntlet, by having him play a blind man, taking away those soulful eyes from the equation, to force the actor out of his comfort zone and deprive him one of his most mesmerizing gifts.
And of course, it's not a surprise that Tony Leung still aces his role of He Bin, an assistant to a piano tuner, who is somewhat like a peer of Daredevil, with his extra sensory prowess channelled into his ability to listen to sounds miles away, or to discern voices from noise. He is discovered by Zhou Xun's 701 operative Chang Xue Ning, one of the best in the business, and their adversarial relationship soon gives into a budding friendship, before hinting of something more. But in the 50s and sworn to a job she pledged her life to, the romance doesn't get anywhere, especially when Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) enters the picture, a fellow operative in the larger family dealing with code breaking, with whom Xue Ning entrusts He Bin to, given her mission to weed out the enemy number known as "Chungking".
Wait, isn't this supposed to be a thriller? It sure was primed to be one, with the first hour dealing with He Bin's discovery, and reluctance to assist the 701 unit, who have to re-locate all the telegraphic channels of the enemy, which suddenly went silent, and having been switched to something else. Blinded in a way, the 701 is desperate to have its listening channels back online, lest their operatives get into harms way. So in comes He Bin and his uncanny ability to zone in beyond the noise, and hunt down the enemy's communication lines, so that surveillance can be re-established. It's a pretty tight set up to introduce us to all the major characters, giving us a little glimpse into their back stories, and motivations.
But it degenerated into its romantic entanglement for a little too long, before the directors realize their over indulgence. It did work out however, in showing the deep friendship between the three central characters involved in the love triangle, with Zhou Xun playing it really like a cool cat, unfazed by competition and knowing her place in the order of battle, while Tony Leung did convince as the illiterate man blessed with a gift that is ruthlessly milked by the organization if not for a friendly face attached to the unit, and the compassion shown. Mavis Fan rounds up the role as the demure, next best alternative, and doesn't really have much to do save to pop up in the final act offering clues.
Rather than opt for big bang sequences, scenes here are kept relatively minimal, lens beautifully by Anthony Pun, with special effects saved for making what He Bin can do, in a very visual sense, bordering on piecing together hypotheses and conclusions that can be drawn from powers of deduction. The period costumes and sets beautifully adorn each scene, and it's somewhat a refreshing change with a period Chinese story that's set up without the usual Japan bashing, with the "enemy" here being the Nationalists in a tussle for power over Mainland China through the employment of spies, and intelligence gathering. It's an unconventional war that's the mainstay focus here, and the filmmakers did their best in contrasting the brutal field work with the more idyllic background that some get to work in, all fighting for the same objective, but in vastly different environments.
The finale did remind me of The Godfather in a way, operatic but here, somewhat anti- climatic given the surprise thrown up in order to deal the characters with an emotional sucker punch. But by and large when the film really got down to its highlights of cold calculations rather than having emotions in the way, it's gripping at best, boasting all round performances from the leads. Even Wang Xuebing as 701's chief nicknamed "Devil" projects screen presence that threatened to steal the show despite having to play wingman here, and I'm already interested to take a closer look at this filmography.
The Silent War may not be Felix Chong and Alan Mak's best work, nor Tony Leung's for that matter despite having to perform with a handicap, but it did serve up sufficient moments that differ from the usual found in the genre, and provided for an entertaining two hours in a world of spy versus spy. Recommended!