Hong Kong, 1949. Zhang Xuening (Zhou Xun), agent 200 with the communist 701 Bureau, receives a coded telegram from Shanghai that the US is planning to make a Chinese missile engineer, codenamed Sparrow (Jacob Cheung), “disappear”. Sparrow, who previously worked in the US, is now back in Hong Kong and is planning to defect to Beijing the next day. Apparently, every country in the world needs to have the departmental equivalent of MI6. In the case of The China Republic Government, that department is Operation 701, which runs a counter-espionage campaign against insurgents and pesky revolutionaries. The result is a largely one-sided and stiff movie that doesn’t quite earn the narrative trust it’s supposed to have.
It’s understandable why the movie is unpopular for those who have seen it. The movie is mostly muted in tones, particularly in the second act that concentrates more on a love triangle between He Bing, Xuening and Shen Jing. While the romantic part has its worthwhile moments, most of them tends to drag the story a lot. Not surprisingly, the pace is erratic with Alan Mak and Felix Chong are yet to practice their sense of restraints whenever they tries to explore in a broader canvas within the genre convention. It’s also a shame that the directors choose to ignore political aspect as well as the overall complexity of Mai Jia’s original novel (in which the movie was adapted) and favors for something more commercial and simpler. The espionage plot is threadbare as our hero is confined to his chair. It’s the recruiter who puts her life on the line, and the revelation of the traitor’s identity is the only thing surprising.
Perhaps the focus on romance and drama by the filmmakers seems to paint a more poetic, even tragic picture, when in reality, some of the events that unfold are merely manipulative. In addition, the whole movie is plastered with a score by Hong Kong’s Comfort CHAN (Infernal Affairs, Bodyguards and Assassins) that is either overstated or simply inappropriate when it should be developing tension or mystery. Technically, the movie is adequate enough. While Dion Lam’s action choreography is nothing to shout about, at least there are some worthwhile tension moments here. Overall production values are visually credible, particularly for its elegant set decoration that has the authentic feel of the period era. Luckily, the director did a satisfactory job; translating a complex words plot into a simpler and more exciting visual format.
Midway through, Leung’s character gets an eye op that will allow him to see. Firstly, I doubt if such technology was available in 1949. Secondly, it brings only more problems for our hero. Nonetheless, the movie is worth watching because of the two leads. The Silent War is a movie that could be great, should be great, but isn’t great. The director’s maintains a mainly bluish-green patina in most scenes with a film-noirish mood. You can always make out the Rembrandt shadow on the guys. The production and photography are excellent. Too bad about the plot, which is hard to turn a blind eye too. The Silent War’s intrigue dissipates towards the second hour, as the film becomes unnecessarily draggy, and this is despite the picture taking on the more conventional mould of a spy thriller with bits of action sprinkled in its climatic sequence.