The Message -- Film Review

The bottom line: A period spy thriller excelling in suspense.

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HONG KONG -- Extravagantly produced to exude an abundance of period elegance, danger and intrigue that sparks associations with "Lust, Caution," "The Message" is a '40s Sino-Japanese spy thriller that's replaced lust with torture as the porn. Co-directing with Taiwan's Chen Kuo-fu ("Double Vision"), who also supplies the elaborate screenplay, China's Gao Qunshu turns his craft at mounting suspense from events set in a tight space and time frame (exemplified by his bomb-detonation thriller "Old Fish") to a more psychological rather than situation-driven level.

Although showy visual effects and cinematography strain the moviemaking, these bells and whistles were designed to impress the target mainland audience, who gave their seal of approval by filling cinemas on opening National Day weekend.

Overseas audiences may feel ambushed by the flurry of characters and historical facts that the film rushes through, although essentially the set-up is a variation on an Agatha Christie whodunit. In 1942, five personnel in the intelligence unit of Wang Jingwei's traitor regime are confined for five days in a villa in the suburbs of Beijing. Three of them are central figures: Morse code expert Ningyu (Lee Bingbing), mailroom staffer Xiaomeng and army captain Wu Jinguo (Zhang Hanyu). One of them is an infiltrator code-named Phantom.

To unmask Phantom's identity, Japanese colonel Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) and his collaborator Wang play the suspects off each other, crushing them mentally and physically with cruel means. Phantom must be equally ruthless to survive and get a message out to resistance leader Magnum.

The mind games, not particularly subtle, are effectively twisted, but the torture scenes are what this film will be remembered for. They are choreographed to abet imagination of unspeakable pain and horror without showing anything really graphic (thus getting around censorship). The sensational array of instruments and methods makes "Hostel" and "Martyrs" seem like one-trick ponies. This rarefied depiction of torture as a sophisticated art form makes one shudder more at the sick minds behind it.

Of the three central figures, Zhou and Li perform with the expressive grace of silent movie heroines. Even as a coquettish rich girl, Zhou hints at inner depth. As the less worldly Ningyu, Li displays poise where one expects hysteria when navigating perilous situations. The male leads don't stand up to them. Huang is especially wooden, and squanders the chance to develop a role already attributed with complex motives. It also is awkward to see Zhang play a collaborator with the same upstanding dignity as the Communist officer in "The Assembly."

Some of the production's heaviest investments are its most glaring aspects, like the CGI overkill, and the ostentatious cinematography by Jake Pollock. The villa is never framed without the fly-cam swooping and fluttering around it, making it look like one of those those haunted castles in Roger Corman movies. Even when the female leads are having a tete-a-tete, the camera swivels and sweeps around them so much you want to shoo it away so as concentrate on the ensemble acting.

Venue: Pusan International Film Festival -- Closing film

Sales: Huayi Brothers Media Corporation Ltd.
Production: Huayi Brothers Media Corporation Ltd, Shanghai Film Group Corp.
Cast: Zhou Xun, Li Bingbing, Zhang Hanyu, Huang Xiaoming, Su Youpeng
Directors: Gao Qunshu, Chen Kuo-fu
Screenwriter: Chen Kuo-fu
Based on the novel by: Mai Jia
Producer: Wang Zhongjun
Executive producer: Feng Xiaogang
Director of photography: Jake Pollock
Production designer: Xiao Haihang
Art director-costume designer: Tim Yip
Music: Michiru Oshima
Editor: Xiao Yang
No rating, 120 minutes