The Silent War is adapted from the novel Listener to the Wind, the first installment of the three-part espionage series “Plot Against” by Mai Jia, a sort of mainland John le Carre. Mak and the film’s screenplay significantly simplifies the plot. The story is set in Shanghai, 1949, with the Japanese defeated; China’s own civil war is ramping up. The Chinese Communist Party is gaining ground in the rural parts of the country, but the Kuomintang (the government advocated by Chiang Kai-shek, and Sun Yet –sen), stills infests the urban areas. Chinese Communist Party Intelligence knows that the key to taking down the Kuomintang is in tapping into their communication channels, but so far they have been unsuccessful. Secret Agent Zhang Xue Ning a/k/a “200” (Zhou Xun) is assigned to retrieve a distinguished piano tuner to apply his hearing to various inaudible radio frequencies, but the crafty Agent Zhang quickly discovers that the blind assistant, He Bing, (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), like Zatoichi, has greatly enhanced hearing as many blind people do because of their lack of sight. Bing is brought into the invisible 701 Unit and proves an unqualified success, sniffing out radio signals no one else can.
The female secret agent Zhou Xun, is, in my opinion, the best character in the movie. Sure we’ve all hear that blind people have their other senses heightened as a result of their inability to see—that is an old tale (i.e. Zatoichi, the comic book character Dare Devil et cetera). However, it is rare that we have the opportunity to see such a smooth female secret agent that doesn’t seem forced—as so often films tend to do when working with such a character. As a result, the film’s heroics fall to Zhou Xun, who does a wonderful job in a role that should be the main focus of this film. Part of her charisma is that she proudly puts herself into harm’s way for love of the Communist Party and on more than one occasion Bing. Zhou is easily the best thing in the film, and impressed me whether she was turning heads at a glamorous Shanghai function or engaging in high-stakes mind games with the enemy during a round of mah jong. It is a shame that the film isn’t more focused on her exploits as Xue Ning makes a far more interesting subject than the blind cliché He Bing.
Writers/directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong must fancy movies about hearing (in one form of another) having made Overheard and then Overheard 2—note these are also the chaps that created the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Infernal Affairs trilogy. As some people say, two steps forward and one step back. The Silent War is that one step back for these two. What kills you are the long, indolent scenes fixated on radio telegraphy; although Morse code is vital to the story, its technical workings are not explained in a stimulating manner. The suspenseful action typical of this genre is reduced to one well-staged escape sequence in a concert hall and a finale that is a letdown.
One area of the film that I particularly enjoyed, though, was the authentic art deco interiors, elaborated by elegant set decorations that are visually striking. The elaborate upscale party scenes are filled with rich vibrant colors and embody the tone of the art-deco renaissance of the 1950’s. Even the film’s cars are cool and classic looking, like they were plucked out of a museum.
If you’ve got a couple of hours to kill, don’t be afraid to watch The Silent War, but don’t expect Overheard, Overheard 2 or anything on the level of the Infernal Affairs trilogy. The film’s well-acted female secret agent and great sets are reason enough to watch The Silent War, but that is about it.