The dots and dashes don’t connect in “The Silent War,” a ’50s Chinese spy thriller that examines the interception of government intelligence via radio frequencies. Hong Kong helmers Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s first foray into propagandist “main rhythm” filmmaking maintains a relatively engaging dramatic arc, but ultimately fails to create a riveting interface between the protagonist’s extraordinary aural powers and the science of eavesdropping. Dismissing it as a glorification of the Chinese Communist Party, Hong Kong auds tuned out, but mainland B.O. has been a roaring success with $30 million. Main plug for overseas markets is topliner Tony Leung Chiu-wai.
Pic is adapted from “Ting feng zhe” (which translates as “Listener to the Wind”), the first installment of the three-part espionage novel “Plot Against” by Mai Jia, a sort of mainland John le Carre. Mak and Chong’s screenplay significantly simplifies the plot, and benefits from the addition of a strong female character played by Zhou Xun. Still, the result lacks the sensationalist thrills and emotional heft of “The Message,” Gao Qunshu’s 2009 screen adaptation of another Mai novel.
The subject here can be seen as an extension of the co-helmers’ other works, notably the “Overheard” and “Infernal Affairs” series, exploring themes of double dealing, surveillance and mind reading, though the contempo intrigues and moral dilemmas explored in those films are absent in this period setting.
After China’s Civil War ended in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party maintained a tenuous grip in big cities and remained under threat of retaliation from the deposed, Taiwan-based Kuomintang (KMT) government. None of this is lucidly conveyed in the dizzyingly edited opening sequence, which gets off to an abrupt start at a Hong Kong high-society ball, where femme fatale Zhang Xuening (Zhou) flirts with Guo Xingzhong (Wang Xuebing, wooden), the playboy son of a shipping magnet. This is followed by a hasty scene shift to a mountainous area in southern China, home of the CCP’s 701 Bureau, where trained experts scan radio frequencies to pick up and decipher the enemy’s encrypted messages.
Identifying himself as the bureau chief, “Devil,” Xingzhong attempts to remedy the sudden disappearance of 120 channels they’ve been tapping by sending agent Xuening (Zhou), codenamed 200, to Shanghai to recruit Luo San’er (Pal Sinn), a piano tuner with legendary hearing. Xuening discovers it’s actually Luo’s blind sidekick, He Bing (Leung), who’s ultra-sensitive to low-frequency sounds, and takes him under wing.
A warm, playful chemistry between the astute agent and the sneaky layabout suffuses the early stages, with Leung’s mischievous touches enlivening scenes of Bing’s initiation and ideological awakening. Although the perfs are lackluster compared with what the thesps have delivered elsewhere, the four-way romantic longing among Xuening, Xingzhong, Bing and Morse code specialist Shen Jing (Mavis Fan, wan) achieves a degree of poignancy. A number of Hong Kong character actors well known in the ’80s and ’90s, namely Carrie Ng Ka-lai, Lam Wai and Henry Fong Ping, pop up briefly, but their roles are too functional to evoke anything beyond cinema nostalgia.
What bogs down the film isn’t its morally black-and-white representations of CCP and KMT agents, or its “Motherland uber alles” stance, which only starts to jar in the final reel. Rather, it’s the long, inert scenes focused on radio telegraphy; although Morse code is crucial to the plot, its technical workings are not explained in an interesting manner. The suspenseful action typical of this genre is reduced to one well-staged escape sequence in a concert hall, and the finale, which promises an explosive showdown, becomes a procedural letdown.
Overall tech package is well appointed. Choice of authentic period interiors, embellished by elegant set decoration, proves visually interesting enough to offset tepid shots of telegraph-tapping protags. A critical flaw is the thunderous orchestral music and clamorous sound effects that surge whenever Bing tries to listen for something significant, all but drowning out any vivid evocation of his sensory experience.