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Review: The Silent War (2012)

The Silent War


Hong Kong/China/Taiwan, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 118 mins.

Directors: Mai Zhaohui 麦兆辉 [Alan Mak], Zhuang Wenqiang 庄文强 [Felix Chong].

Rating: 4/10.

Actress Zhou Xun is the only reason to watch this clumsy, poorly written spy drama.


Hong Kong, 1949. Zhang Xuening (Zhou Xun), agent 200 with the communist 701 Bureau, receives a coded telegram from Shanghai that the US is planning to make a Chinese missile engineer, codenamed Sparrow (Zhang Zhiliang), “disappear”. Sparrow, who previously worked in the US, is now back in Hong Kong and is planning to defect to Beijing the next day. At a farewell party for him that night, Zhang Xuening spirits Sparrow away. At 701 Bureau’s HQ in southern China, Zhang Xuening is instructed by its head, known as Devil (Wang Xuebing), to bring back from Shanghai a famous piano tuner, Luo San’er, whose acute sense of pitch could help the bureau’s radio-monitoring division find the frequencies now being used by KMT agents for military information. In Shanghai, she rescues instead Luo San’er’s blind assistant, He Bing (Liang Chaowei), who has a much more highly developed sense of hearing, and brings him back to 701’s HQ. He Bing manages to discover over 70 radio channels in a couple of days, which provide intelligence that KMT agents are gathering in China’s major cities, including Shanghai. He Bing develops a liking for Zhang Xuening, though she has feelings for her boss, Devil. When 701 agent Wu Chang (Dong Yuan) is killed in Shanghai while following KMT agent Zhang Guoxiang (Lin Wei), Devil suspects there are still some undiscovered radio channels being used by the KMT for advanced codes. He Bing finds them, and learns that the head of the whole KMT spying operation is codenamed Chongqing. While Zhang Xuening is away on a long mission in Shanghai, He Bing marries Shen Jing (Fan Xiaoxuan), a decipher clerk whose father is head of the KMT’s Deciphering Unit. When Zhang Xuening returns, she brings with her a doctor who can cure He Bing’s blindness. Soon afterwards she leaves for a deadly mission in Shanghai, to track down Chongqing.


Zhou Xun 周迅, who’s gradually developed into one of China’s classiest actresses, is the only reason (not for the first time in her career) to watch the otherwise clumsily directed and poorly written spy drama The Silent War 听风者. On paper the movie sounds very promising: Zhou teams again with Hong Kong’s Liang Chaowei 梁朝伟 [Tony Leung Chiu-wai], with whom she recently struck sparks in The Great Magician 大魔术师 (2012); the script is adapted from a 2006 novel by Mainland writer Mai Jia 麦家, author of the original book from which the classy spy drama The Message 风声 (2009), also starring Zhou, was adapted; and the writer-directors are Hong Kong’s Mai Zhaohui 麦兆辉 [Alan Mak] and Zhuang Wenqiang 庄文强 [Felix Chong], of the Infernal Affairs 无间道 trilogy (2002-03) and Overheard 窃听风云 series (2009-11, to date). So much for the theory.

In practice, almost nothing works. Mai and Zhuang effectively ditch the original novel – already the basis for a 40-part TV drama, Plot Against 暗算 (2005), directed by actor Liu Yunlong 柳云龙 – in favour of a clumsily constructed drama mixing code-breaking, romance and action but almost completely ignoring the political background of the early days of the PRC. Liang, already given a totally unsuitable voice in his Mandarin redubbing, is miscast in a role that’s half-jokey and half just twiddling radio dials. And the whole movie is plastered with a score by Hong Kong’s Chen Guangrong 陈光荣 [Comfort Chan] (Infernal Affairs; Bodyguards and Assassins 十月围城, 2009) that is either overstated or simply inappropriate when it should be developing tension or mystery.

The rest of the Hong Kong crew’s contributions are so-so at best (including action by Lin Di’an 林迪安 [Dion Lam]), with only the grey, shadowy images by d.p. Pan Yaoming 潘耀明 [Anthony Pun] of the code-breaking HQ having any atmosphere. Even setpieces, such as Liang’s character being followed through the streets as his ears tune into peripheral sounds, fail to develop much tension, and the technical side of his spy job – a key plot component, one would have thought – is left fuzzy at best, all the more surprising in a film by the makers of an acute surveillance drama like Overheard.

Aside from Zhou, whose cool performance dominates from the start (and earns the movie an extra point), Mainland actor Wang Xuebing 王学兵 gets few chances in the script to make much of an impression as her equally cool boss, and the attraction between the two remains largely theoretical. Taiwan singer-actress Fan Xiaoxuan 范晓萱 (Lover’s Discourse 恋人絮语, 2010) comes over likeably but also gets few scenes in which to develop her character, the daughter of a KMT code-breaker who’s ludicrously been given a high-security job as a communist code-breaker. It’s just one of many loose ends in the lazy script by Mai and Zhuang, two film-makers whose chequered career since Infernal Affairs has been given more than enough benefit of the doubt.


Presented by Mei Ah Media (Beijing) (CN), Zhejiang Golden Globe Pictures (CN), Wanda Media (CN), Mei Ah Film Production (HK), Mei Ah Entertainment Development (TW). Produced by Pop Movies (HK), Mei Ah Media (Beijing) (CN), Mei Ah Film Production (HK).

Script: Mai Zhaohui [Alan Mak], Zhuang Wenqiang [Felix Chong]. Novel: Mai Jia (2006). Photography: Pan Yaoming [Anthony Pun]. Editing: Peng Zhengxi [Curran Pang]. Music: Chen Guangrong [Comfort Chan]. Art direction: Wen Nianzhong [Man Lim-chung]. Sound: Nopawat Likitwong. Action: Lin Di’an [Dion Lam]. Visual effects: Lin Hongfeng.

Cast: Liang Chaowei [Tony Leung Chiu-wai] (He Bing), Zhou Xun (Zhang Xuening), Wang Xuebing (Guo Xingzhong/Lao Gui/Devil), Fan Xiaoxuan (Shen Jing, He Bing’s wife), Dong Yong (Wu Chang, 701 agent), Lin Wei (Zhang Guoxiang, KMT agent), Zhang Zhiliang [Jacob Cheung] (Sparrow), Shan Liwen (Luo San’er), Wu Jiali [Carrie Ng] (Mrs. Li, Shanghai Train Company manager’s wife), Gan Tingting (boss lady, Luo San’er’s lover), Tang Qun (He Bing’s mother), Zhang Haiyan (Mrs. Ma), Fang Ping (Cao).

Release: Hong Kong, 10 Aug 2012; China, 7 Aug 2012; Taiwan, 7 Sep 2012.

(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 29 Aug 2012.)