The Silent War (聽風者)

the silent war

The Silent War promises a lot. It’s a period film beautifully wrapped in the earthy tones of 1949 China still suffering the birth pangs of nationhood. A blind piano tuner is recruited to help locate radio frequencies and listen in on encrypted messages being transmitted by the Kuomintang, and he is guided by Xuening, a capable and steely taskmaster. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhou Xun front the film while Alan Mak and Felix Chong, the duo responsible for the Infernal Affairs and Overheard trilogies, pen and direct.

Yet for all its creative assets, this movie never really gets off the ground as a spy thriller or a romance, both of which it tries to juggle. Based on the novel Plot Against by Mai Jia, the danger of the spy game is barely perceptible when translated to the screen. Much of the action is reduced to panning shots of Bing (Leung) twisting knobs and staring through milky lenses, a look of disquieted concentration etched into his face. When Xuening goes undercover and tries to suss out a KMT ringleader, there’s about as much suspense as an awkward game of mahjong, which is exactly how the scene unfolds. As far as heart-stopping action goes, the most exciting moment is unrelated to espionage and happens early on when a gang of thugs brandishing giant cleavers chase a philanderer through a music hall.

Part of the fault lies in the characterization of Bing, whose superhuman hearing abilities stand out but little else. The film limits him to a largely sedentary role and tries to compensate by putting him in sort of a romantic rectangle with Xuening, her superior (Wang Xuebing), and a Communist decoder with KMT ties (Mavis Fan). But so much is left not just unsaid but unemoted that the climax rings hollow. Added to that is Leung’s interpretation of his character, a somewhat testy grump. He opts for levity and, in an odd misstep for an actor who handles somber historical leading man roles with ease, plays Bing like a forlorn schoolboy. Zhou fares better as Xuening and delivers a more consistent performance. She and the film are strongest when she goes head to head with Wang, two top spooks engaging in conspiratorial whispers.

The Silent War is at least visually impressive, particularly when Bing tries to interpret a series of transmissions in order to deduce the identity of an elusive spyhead. The sequence has a ghostly quality that does a better job of heightening the mystery than the script. But for a film about sensitivity to sound, this one lacks a strong sound design. Except for a few deliberate scenes that emphasize Bing’s aural experience, his key moments are washed away by grandiose scoring. The music matches the overall tone of the story, but this wastes opportunities to focus on Bing and tease out his emotions. One could interpret that as a way of satisfying the censors; this is a Hong Kong film made for the Mainland market, so rousing nationalism is largely subdued save for a final red bang. Or it could be miscalculation, one of many that resulted in a more cohesive and stirring trailer than movie.

Mandarin track trailer:

Released: 2012
Prod: Ronald Wong 黃斌; Charley Zhuo 卓伍
Dir: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Writer: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Zhou Xun 周迅; Wang Xuebing 王學兵; Mavis Fan 范曉萱; Dong Yong 董勇; Lam Wai 林威; Jacob Cheung 張之亮; Tan Lap-Man 單立文; Carrie Ng 吳家麗; Henry Fong 方平; Tang Qun 唐群; Cheung Hoi-Yin 張海燕
Time: 120 min
Lang: Cantonese/Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014