Recommended: The Message (Chen Kuo-fu, Gao Qunshu, 2009)

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Asian film enthusiasts will surely find their interest piqued by East Winds: A Third Window Film Festival which takes place at the Warwick Arts Centre from February 11-13 and includes titles from China, Japan and South Korea. The closing film of the festival will be Chen Kou-fu and Gao Qunshu’s excellent espionage thriller The Message, with Gao in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.

With its Second Sino-Japanese War setting, The Message stands out as the only period piece in a line-up that also includes Sion Sono’s true crime expose Cold Fish (2010),Tetsuya Nakashima classroom revenge thriller Confessions (2010), Gen Takahashi’s police corruption epic Confessions of a Dog (2006) and Kim Sang-jin’s gangster comedy Kick the Moon (2001). However, the taut plotting of The Message should prove to be as gripping for fans of big-budget foreign-language blockbusters as it undoubtedly will for modern history buffs.

The events of The Message take place in 1942, with China under Japanese occupation and the puppet government running the country from its Nanjing headquarters. However, a recent run of assassination attempts has led the political elite to become increasingly paranoid about the presence of a spy in their ranks, leading cunning Japanese officer Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) to put a plan in motion that will narrow down the list of suspects. Takeda sends a false message around the office and, when that information is repeated in a coded communication, he realises that the spy must be one of five operatives: Captain Wu (Zhang Hanyu), code breaker Li (Li Bingbing), Colonel Bai (Alec Su), Councilor Jin (Ying Da) or stenographer Gu (Zhon Xun). The suspects are promptly shipped out to a remotely located stone castle where each operative is subjected not only to interrogation, but also to torture, with Takeda aiming to uncover the identity of the mole – codenamed ‘Phantom’ – as a means of learning the whereabouts of the rebel organisation’s figurehead. Takeda maintains a calm façade throughout the proceedings, but it becomes apparent that he is running the operation for reasons that go beyond patriotic duty.

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The Message is a model of tightly-wound narrative efficiency, with the period and its political climate being swiftly established through an opening montage of newspaper headlines that chronicle the on-going efforts of the resistance movement, while the vibrancy of street parties and swinging nightclubs is contrasted with the dour formality of the military offices. The action soon moves to the castle, which is as ominous as it is opulent, with co-directors Chen and Gao making the most of impressively designed interiors that range from the dank dungeon where the most severe interrogations are carried out, to the bugged bedrooms in which the operatives forge alliances. Some effort has been made to technically update this otherwise old-school suspense thriller by imposing visual effects that suggest the telegraphic transmission of messages, but such sequences are an arguably unnecessary addition when the premise sets up so many dramatic possibilities.

Although based on the third in a loosely-linked trilogy of spy novels by Jia Mai, this adaptation offers a self-contained narrative that keeps the flag-waving associated with mainland studio productions to a minimum and instead ratchets up the tension through a series of well-acted confrontations; Li picked up the Best Actress trophy at the 46th Golden Horse Awards for her performance as the vulnerable code breaker, but Zhang’s tough-as-nails veteran and Zhon’s quick-witted party girl are equally outstanding.

Ultimately, any game of cat-and-mouse is only as good as its bad guy, and The Message has a more than adequate antagonist in Takeda, who has no qualms about taking torture to the next level, on the basis that it is, ‘Better to kill the wrong person than let the culprit go.’ As with other films in the East Winds programme, The Message is a particularly classy piece of commercial Asian cinema that is worth catching on the big screen.

About the author

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, John Berra is a Lecturer in Film Studies and the author of Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production (2008). He is also the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent (2010) and the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (2010), and is a regular contributor to Electric Sheep, Film International and Scope.

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