A mild-mannered, probably dull, Chinese energy services executive working and living in Australia unwittingly gets pulled into a corporate conspiracy in Xue Xiaolu’s The Whistleblower, a thriller that moves at such a breakneck pace you barely have time to realize just how dazed and confused the film really is. In a bid to become the Kathryn Bigelow of China, the Finding Mr. Right writer-director reunites with Tang Wei following the pair’s success in the rom-com arena. But where Mr. Right exploited Tang’s innate charm and worldliness, for some inexplicable reason Xue and co-writer Jiao Huajing have this time reduced her to a simpering sidekick who gets ushered out of danger by the leading man, and who really just wants to find a nice husband — but not for laughs. Xue’s strengths as a filmmaker may lie more in fluffy comedy than in carefully calibrated tension.
The Whistleblower should find a home with viewers looking for some Mission: Impossible-style corporate espionage during what is traditionally highbrow awards season, and Tang’s not insignificant fan base, both in Asia and beyond borders, is likely to respond given the actor’s relatively spotty screen output. But the pic will have a hard time holding on to them; streaming services will eventually pick up the slack as well as hide flaws on more intimate screens.
Considering The Whistleblower is yet another shot by the Chinese film industry for international credibility (and brand-building) started by Wolf Warrior 2 and The Wandering Earth, the movie’s biggest failing is, ironically, its lack of vision. Cultural sensitivity isn’t one of the industry’s strong suits, but it’s surprising that a co-producing partner like Screen Australia wouldn’t point out that the German technology giant is Siemens, not “Semmens,” that “Chinaman” is archaic at the very, very least, or suggest Xue find a way to maneuver her main characters into the high-security African power plant that didn’t involve blackface (seriously).
The story starts in a quiet corner of Malawi when a powerful earthquake strikes a small village, ripping up the land and releasing fire and brimstone from beneath the surface. As the news travels, Chinese miner Peter Wu (Wang Ce) becomes the talking head for the Australian firm that employs him, Grand Power Energy Corporation, whose mine may have caused the disaster. But Wu’s not happy, and shortly after the quake he crashes a fancy dinner where GPEC is finalizing a deal with Luhan Han Mei Group in China for an underground coal gasification project. Also at the party: his Melbourne-based assistant, Mark Ma (Lei Jiayin, The Wandering Earth) and the wife of Han Mei’s chairman, Zhou Siliang (Tang).
The title alone suggests there’s a dastardly plot about to unfold, and indeed, it does so with all the clichés and conventions expected of the genre. Do Mark and Siliang have a romantic history? Damn straight they do. Are there hitmen? You bet. Are the Australians the mustache-twirling villains? Of course they are. Just look at the epilogue that explains China’s active creation of laws to protect whistleblowers and help us all fight corruption (notably, none of the lauded true-life whistleblowers named in the same epilogue are from China). Does a Chinese government minister vow to thoroughly investigate the use of a dangerous technology in an urban center? Do you have to ask?
None of that would be as grating (OK, maybe not the blackface) were The Whistleblower‘s storytelling and construction a bit more polished and its characters more compelling. Lei plays Mark as more inept than an everyman in over his head, and Tang does little more than squeal and rue the day she let Mark slip through her fingers. The Australians, led by (evidently) in-house fixer-assassin James Harrison (John Batchelor) and money-grubbing boss Chris (Andy Friend), are hilariously conniving.
It takes nearly an hour before any kind of conspiracy is suggested and a full 90 minutes to even a whiff of whistle-blowing, all of it tucked amid heat-free rekindled romance, marital strife and multiple tabloid media scrums. And that doesn’t address the plot’s overstuffed nature: Why limit yourself when you can have three whistleblowers instead of one? When the film takes a last-act turn into Ocean’s Eleven-meets-The Insider territory, complete with a crew of bait-and-switching hotel staff, CCTV hackers and a touch of F/X, it flirts with camp.
Cinematographer Marc Spicer does a nice job painting Luhan in a smoggy gray that underpins the energy plotline, and with the exception of some creaky CGI fires and green screen, tech specs are fine. But Xue should have followed Bigelow’s lead and gone with way less romance and way more intrigue.
Production companies: Edko Films, Perfect Village Entertainment
Cast: Tang Wei, Lei Jiayin, Qi Xi, John Batchelor, Andy Friend, Wang Ce, Chen Chuan, Warwick Sadler, Yang Lixin, Steve Bastoni, Xing Mingshan
Director: Xue Xiaolu
Screenwriters: Xue Xiaolu, Jiao Huajing
Producers: Greg Basser, Bill Kong
Executive producers: Mathew Tang, Hao Li
Director of photography: Marc Spicer
Production designers: Yee Chung Man, Jeffrey Thorp
Costume designers: Katherine Milne, Dora Ng
Music: David Hirschfelder
Editors: Andy Canny, Hu Shuzhen
Casting: Louise Mitchell
Sales: Edko Films
In Putonghua, English