East Wind Rain
China, 2010, colour, 2.35:1, 112 mins.
Director: Liu Yunlong 柳云龙.
Densely plotted, Shanghai-set spy tale is loaded with meaty production design and performances.
Shanghai, Dec 1941. Communist spy An Ming (Liu Yunlong), working as a nightclub pianist in the city’s International Settlement, learns from his Japanese source, South Manchuria Railway local manager Nakanishi Masahiro (Miura Kenichi), a fellow communist, that Japan is to attack Pearl Harbor. However, following the assassination of two members of his unit, An Ming has no way of transmitting the unbelievable information to his superiors. Nakanishi Masahiro subsequently receives confirmation of the attack in a coded weather broadcast on Japanese radio (“East wind, rain”) and also hears that a roll of film containing major information is secretly on its way to him from a fellow high-placed sympathiser, Ozaki Hidemi (Dong Cheng), in Tokyo. On the night of 7 Dec, Nakanishi Masahiro is arrested, the roll of film goes missing, and Japan declares war on the US, next day taking over the whole city. In the subsequent weeks, a battle of wits ensues between Japanese intelligence head Fujiki Yoshio (Takemoto Takayuki) and An Ming and his colleague Hao Birou (Li Xiaoran), a teacher at a refugee hostel, as both sides try to trace the roll of film. An Ming also comes under pressure from his new liaison officer, Fang Qianmo (Yu Rongguang), and from his girlfriend, nighclub singer Huanyan (Fan Bingbing), to leave Shanghai, but he refuses until his job is done.
If the characters in East Wind Rain 东风雨 and Shanghai had been real people, they couldn’t help but bump into each other. Set at the same time, in the same city (where it conveniently rains at moments of high drama), the two films are the flip-side of the same coin: Shanghai through western eyes, East Wind Rain through Chinese ones. The former is pulpier and more drenched in “exotic” atmosphere, while the latter has a more political plot and natural setting. Though East Wind is less hard-driven, both are equally entertaining on their own levels. Locally, East Wind plays into the whole fad for big-screen spy melodramas that The Message 风声 (2009) reaped last autumn.
Freed from the need to explain historical background or the city’s “orphan island” position to a Chinese audience, East Wind‘s script packs enough detail into its 112 minutes to fill a mini-series. Writer/producer Yang Jian 杨健 previously worked with actor/director Liu Yunlong 柳云龙 on the 34-part TV drama Conspiracy 暗算 (2005), and his episodic screenplay, peppered with fade-outs, often seems like a super-condensed TV one. But East Wind does play like a big-screen movie, thanks to superb, wintry cinematography by Hong Kong veteran Huang Yuetai 黄岳泰 [Arthur Wong] (Warlords 投名状, 2007; Bodyguards and Assassins 十月围城, 2009), terrific production design by Yi Zhenzhou 易振洲 (Battle of Wits 墨攻, 2006) – especially the central nightclub, with its pool of synchro swimmers, and the rarely-seen Jewish ghetto in which the two leads hide out – awesome CGI recreations of Shanghai cityscapes by Malaysia-born Hu Shengzhong 胡升中 [Foo Sing Choong] (Silk 诡丝, 2006; Sophie’s Revenge 非常完美, 2009), and tight editing of the mobile, close-up camerawork by Hong Kong’s Lin An’er 林安儿 [Angie Lam]. The film’s opening setpiece in a greyhound stadium – which reportedly took 20 days to shoot – gets the movie off to a punchy start, and is never quite equalled thereafter.
The labyrinthine plot, largely centred on the MacGuffin of a missing roll of film, takes some concentration to follow, and is largely an excuse to field a strong lineup of character actors in meaty roles. Some, like the turncoat-for-hire of Ying Da 英达 and the gentleman power-broker of Hong Kong actor Zeng Jiang 曾江 [Kenneth Tsang], come into their own in the second half, while the cultured spymaster of Takemoto Takayuki 竹本孝之 grows throughout the movie. Leads Liu (making his debut as a feature-film director) and Fan Bingbing 范冰冰 move through the film on a separate star plane as tragic lovers caught up in the whirlwind of history, and both have a pulpy, romantic chemistry with each other.
With East Wind, Fan, 28, cements her position as China’s youngest old-style diva, but her dialogue in scenes with Liu is too poetically flowery, with no real emotional pull. Dressed to the nines, she looks stunning throughout but is more credible as a nightclub singer than as the character she’s later revealed to be. The supporting roles are more emotionally engaging, especially Li Xiaoran 李小冉 as a teacher-cum-spy and Yu Rongguang 于荣光 as a distrustful spy handler-cum-Beijing Opera performer (in a rare film reference to his actual roots).
The multilingual dialogue, which has large sections in Japanese, is let down by some embarrassing English bits; only Aires da Cruz, as a Jewish barman, plays in a way that sounds natural to native English-speakers. The movie is purportedly based on historical facts – that Communist spies knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack but thought the Americans would never believe them – but that’s never allowed to get in the way of a good spy yarn.
Presented by Shanghai East Media Group (CN), China Film Group (CN), Beijing Eastern United Film & TV Entertainment Distribution (CN), Airmedia Group (CN), Beijing Hui Jin He Sheng Investment (CN). Produced by Shanghai East Media Group (CN), China Film Group (CN), Beijing Eastern United Film & TV Entertainment Distribution (CN), Airmedia Group (CN), Dfly Culture Development (CN).
Script: Yang Jian. Photography: Huang Yuetai [Arthur Wong]. Editing: Lin An’er [Angie Lam], Li Fang. Music: Lao Zai, Zhao Lin. Production design: Yi Zhenzhou. Art direction: Liu Baishan. Set decoration: Li Dong, Sun Licai, Weng Kan. Stylist: Liu Shiyun. Costumes: Xi Caifen. Make-up: Wang Xuemin. Hair: Cai Xiaoling, Zhang Guoxing. Sound: Shi Baofeng, Lu Ke. Historical advice: Xu Yan. Action: Li Guomin. Visual effects: Hu Shengzhong [Foo Sing Choong]. Special effects: Chai Kefu. Choreography: Fang Jun. Executive direction: Jiang Feng.
Cast: Liu Yunlong (An Ming), Fan Bingbing (Huanyan), Takemoto Takayuki (Fujiki Yoshio), Li Xiaoran (Hao Birou), Yu Rongguang (Fang Qianmo), Ying Da (Yi), Zeng Jiang [Kenneth Tsang] (Gentleman Yu), Yano Koji (Cheng Hai’an, TASS journalist), Kohata Ryu (Yano Shinichi, Tokyo National Police Agency officer), Miura Kenichi (Nakanishi Masahiro), Wang Baoqiang (underground messenger), Liu Xuan (underground telegraphist), Fang Fang (Sun, nightclub manager), Aires da Cruz (nightclub barman), Purba Rgyal (Sang), Xu Cheng (Min), Ivan (Russian), Olya (Mosala), Ferdi Poddath (Smith), Jon Benn (Father John, priest), Dave Redknap (Whiteman), Michael Joseph (Powell), Wang Zhihua (underground party member), Dong Cheng (Ozaki Hidemi), Nakauchi Naoyuki (prison warden), Lu Keding (Buddhist monk), Cao Yuan (bank employee), Ramin (pianist), Zheng Zhihua (female boss), Chen Jinhui (male boss).
Release: China, 22 Apr 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 30 Jun 2010.)