The Message is one of the blockbusters released on the 60th anniversary of People’s Republic of China, but it is far from being a forgettable propaganda film. To put it simply, the Message plays like a crafted fusion of Agatha Christie styled whodunit and bold Chinese period melodrama. For Asian film buffs and fans of cross-cultural references, it’s an exhilarating and stylistically cinematic ride.
The film opens in Nanking, 1942, as a series of high-rank officer of the Japanese-controlled puppet government is assassinated. Colonel Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) deduces that one of the five people working in his counterinsurgency centre is the mole supposedly behind this insurgency, codenamed The Phamtom. The suspects are smart, cold codebreaker Li Ningyu (Li Bingbing); administrative officer Gu Xiaomeng (Zhou Xun), a seemingly vapid rich girl and also Ningyu’s best friend; military office section chief Wu Zhiguo (Zhang Hanyu), a tough, experienced scarred soldier; officer Bai Xiaonian (Taiwan’s Alec Su), a flamboyant homosexual; and section chief Jin Shenguo (comedian Ying Da), a talkative coward. Takeda then invites all of them to a remote mansion hidden in the mountain, which is styled like European baronial residence with an added horror undertone.
In a nutshell, an intense game of “cat and mouse” ensues as the suspects quarrel, scheme and get picked off one by one by Takeda. The characters come across as more intelligent and secretive than I expected, many of whom are rendered with complex psychological shadings. Zhou Xun deftly adds a foxy edge to the character of a spoilt rich girl, but Li Bingbing, as the vulnerable top-notched codebreaker, quietly trumps her in the acting department. Hot new star Huang Xiaoming demonstrate his range confidently as the psychopath, increasingly desperate Takeda. Alex Su looks totally different yet convincing in the role of a mean secretary with gay overtone. In addition, swooping camerawork, pulsating musical score and the gothic interior design and opulent costumes are sure to be engaging.
Fans of espionage tales, however, may feel disappointed as the film is set to play out the innocents in sequential order and smoke out the spy amongst their midst. The animated background appears intermittently to flash the stream of thought going on in the unknown espionage agent’s mind, which might be too straightforward and distracting to some extent. The audiences are informed directly that the secret mole has to send the words out to abort a misconceived mission; otherwise it would spell the end of the resistance force. As a result, my enthusiasm for logical reasoning is not triggered because the animation provides one clue too many as to whether the Japanese have got the right mole or not.
Overall, The Message aspires to be a 1940s film noir, but it was inconsistent, sometimes even a bit contrived and overkill (watch out the singing in German under the swastika flag and copious torture scenes that seem more like novel onscreen). The interaction between the two principal characters, Guo Xiaomeng and Li Ningyu, was awkward and distant, but it can be attributed to the fact that the film was cut short by half. Fortunately it is the final arc that offsets the potboiler multistar vehicle with a satisfying conclusion that returns to the historical backdrop. It’s hard not to be touched by the lengths that resistance fighters are willing to go to, in the name of the loyalty to their homeland. Maybe it’s time for Chinese cinema to explore demons of the past through a modern reinterpretation backed by some form of escapism and fantasy.