The Silent War (Ting feng zhe)

Hong Kong/China (2012) Dirs. Alan Mak & Felix Chong

In the 1950’s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a secret group code named 701 Bureau to intercept, decipher and relay any secret coded messages being sent from the Twaine based opposition group KMT. When 120 radio channels suddenly disappear, top agent Zhang Xuening aka 200 (Zhou Xun) is despatched by her boss Guo Xingzhong aka Devil (Wang Xuebing) to bring in piano tuner Luo San’er (Pal Sinn), renowned for his exceptional hearing. However Zhang discovers it is actually Luo’s blind assistant He Bing (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who has the incredible hearing and decides to recruit him instead.

For Alan Mak and Felix Chong it appears that the Infernal Affairs trilogy (remade in Hollywood as the Departed) will be their magnum opus to be remembered for the ages; though it is not for the lack of trying new ideas to prove themselves as versatile filmmakers to avoid the one trick pony label. Based on the novel Ting feng zhe (“Listener to the Wind“) by Mai Jia, this espionage thriller reunites the pair with Infernal Affairs star Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who in turn is reunited with his Great Magician co-star Zhou Xun, but while it has all the hall marks of a tense cat and mouse game of deceit and one-upmanship it takes a detour into lighter territory with the arrival of a somewhat static love triangle.

The actual gist of the story and 701’s raison d’etre is a little muddled at first. We don’t get to know much about the group or Zhang aka 200 until a little later in the film, after Bing has been recruited and has passed the entrance test with near arrogant ease – although we do know they mean serious business as Zhang is introduced to us at a posh gathering in Hong Kong where she seduces and kills some unfortunate soul. Almost an hour into the film after Bing has proved himself with his superior hearing and unearthed a number of hidden low frequency channels, we get the crux of the matter: the hunt for the mysterious KMT spy known as “Chungking”.

During this time Bing befriends shy, pretty Morse Code expert Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) which irks Zhang a little, not that she lets on to Bing who may also harbour reciprocal feelings and she certainly doesn’t let on to Devil with whom she has also flirted. With Zhang away trying to filter Chunking out of his hiding place Bing and Shen Jing marry although the new bride is acutely aware that there is a third person in their marriage even if it hasn’t been consummated. While this subplot is well acted out and creates a sense of poignancy to Bing’s blindness and to the tacit love affair between Bing and Zhang, it does slow the pace of the story down and feels quite incongruous. It certainly doesn’t do the narrative much good when it is trying to enthral the audience with its spy thriller premise.

The final act tries to resolve these issues as Zhang closes in Chungking but this being the espionage business, things don’t run so smoothly. Throw in some last minute political unrest and we are on the verge of an explosive finale. Sadly we remain on the verge and the film sort of fizzles out. A shame as the story had such great potential and the last minute twists heading into the payoff unfortunately weren’t enough to salvage the damp squib of an ending.

The film isn’t all bad. One can’t fault the production aspect or the main performances. Tony Leung is once again on top form, proving his versatility again in his portrayal of the blind man Bing. He initially plays things with humour and cockiness but the import of his job and the romance with Shen Jing changes his demeanour and allows for Leung to expand his character emotionally. Mavis Fan is sweet and brings a lot of humanity to the proceedings but ultimately her role feels a little too functional at best. The ever reliable Zhou Xun relishes every scene where she gets vamp it up as the slinky spy Zhang, although she keeps her game face on a little too much when she needed to show her softer side during the love triangle showdowns. Otherwise she, along with Leung, are the two solvent forces of this film.

What we ultimately have with The Silent War is a good by not great film that has so much going for it – and is apparently aware of this – but takes one too many detours from its initial remit to live up to that potential. It is very well made and acted but what it does show is that perhaps Infernal Affairs will be Mak and Chong’s apex achievement for a while longer.