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Review: The Message (China, 2009)

A star-studded Chinese blockbuster which feels like a game of Clue set during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

By , 17 Jan 17 07:29 UTC
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Spy movies from the War of Resistance Against Japan (known in the west as Second Sino-Japanese War, or the Chinese theater of WWII) abound in contemporary China. With a star-studded cast and numerous awards under its belt, 2009’s The Message provides a somewhat novel entrant to the genre, though Western audiences may find familiar echoes in its plot.

The film is set during 1942 in Nanjing, under the rule of Wang Jingwei’s pro-Japanese collaborationist puppet government. After the assassinations of several puppet government officials, a Japanese counterintelligence chief named Takeda suspects there may be a Communist mole in the government’s ranks. Based on intelligence extracted from a captured assassin, Takeda ensnares five individuals with a false telegram and brings them all to a mysterious castle.

The movie’s poster.

Takeda’s five unfortunate castle guests represent a broad swath of disciplines (and Chinese A-listers). There’s Wu Zhiguo (Zhang Hanyu), a captain in charge of an anti-communist military unit; Bai Xiaonan (Alec Su), a puppet government aide; Li Ningyu (Li Bingbing), a telegraph decoder; Gu Xiaomeng (Zhou Xun), a mailroom staffer; and Jin Shenghuo (Ying Da), director of military intelligence. Instead of immediately torturing them, Takeda and his Chinese collaborationist minions confine the five and put them under close observation, wining and dining them in the opulent castle whilst scrutinizing their every move. He knows two things: that the mole has to be within this group of five, and that they will be trying to send a message back to their comrades while confined.

In this claustrophobic setting, exacerbated by Takeda’s silent but ever-penetrating inquiries, the five begin turning on each other. One by one, the suspects are brought before Takeda and his minions for interrogation as various evidence, of varying degrees of veracity, emerges fingering each them. But even after deploying horrific tortures, Takeda is still empty-handed, and the communist agent is still at large to send out their message. The cat-and-mouse hunt continues.

If you (probably as an American or Briton) think this sounds a lot like the popular board game Clue or Agatha Christie’s novel Death on the Nile (or their respective movie adaptations), you’re not alone. The trope of a bunch of suspects confined in a foreboding space turning each other as pressure mounts to find the true culprit isn’t necessarily unique, though this is probably the first time I’ve seen it applied to a Chinese film set during the War of Resistance Against Japan. Perhaps purposefully, The Message also contains an unusually large number of other Western influences. For instance, the castle the characters are confined in is built in a Western, gothic style; both its interior and exterior look like nothing you’d actually find in China. Additionally, there are scenes in which Japanese troops guarding the castle are singing German folk songs with pitch-perfect precision beneath banners of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy — something that also probably didn’t happen too often in reality.

Alas, The Message is still a Chinese blockbuster, and as such inevitably contains many standard elements of War of Resistance Against Japan narratives. The heroes, of course, are communist. Patriotism, sacrifice, and the importance of continued Chinese solidarity against Japanese villainy are not-so-thinly-veiled themes. Nevertheless, with its suspenseful, Western-influenced plot and setting, The Message is one of the more fresh takes on a well-established Chinese cinematic tradition of 1940s spies against Japan.

The Message (Chinese: 风声) — China. Dialog in Mandarin. Directed by Chen Kuo-Fu and Gao Qunshu. First released September 2009. Running time 2hr. Starring Zhou Xun, Zhang Hanyu, Alec Su, Ying Da, and Li Bingbing. 

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