The Silent War or Ting Feng Zhe (2012)
As a central metaphor, let’s assume that what you need to get a rounded view of any given problem is perspective. If you’re too close, you can be distracted by details and irrelevancies. Move away and you can then see the wood for the trees. The question, then, is how far away to remove yourself. You could physically retreat, say, leaving the city and taking up residence in the countryside, miles from anywhere. You might then stand in a field and the only thing you could hear would be the wind as it rustled through the grasses. If you wanted to increase the distance, you could depersonalise those around you, referring to people only as numbers and reducing all data about people to signs and symbols. The hope would be that the more you distill the information down to its core essentials, the more obvious it becomes which elements are the most salient and how solutions may be found. Taking this to an extreme, a man might come to believe that even sight was a hindrance to finding “truth”. He might be as far from centres of human settlements as he can get. He might have found a specially constructed room which is so acoustically shielded, no sound can penetrate from outside. But even that might not be enough. Only true darkness may elevate the sense of hearing to its most acute. The question is how much you might sacrifice for the one you truly love.
The Silent War or Ting Feng Zhe (2012) is a new film by Felix Chong and Alan Mak and it continues the theme of Overheard or Sit yan fung wan and Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2 in which various forms of spying and their consequences are investigated. This time, we’re relocated to the 1950s and are presented with an adaptation of An Suan or Plot Against by Jia Mai who was also responsible for the magnificent novel and film, The Message or Feng sheng. This deals with the time when the emergent Communist Party of China (CPC) was still locking horns with agents of the Kuomintang (KMT). Assassination, sabotage and terrorism were all possible threats. Not unnaturally, the CPC sets out to gather intelligence and creates a central listening station called Unit 701. It’s at this point we need to separate the literal images we see on the screen from their metaphorical counterpart. Why? Because what we see on the screen is literally nonsense.
In the real world of espionage, messages are kept short to reduce the chance that the code can be cracked, they are sent at random times of the day on a revolving schedule of different frequencies. This means hundreds of operatives are required to physically monitor all frequencies on the off-chance one will pick up a message. Remember this is long before governments developed automated monitoring systems which can record all frequencies and analyse even the static for signs of a message. Yet what we have here is the KMT
broadcasting messages 24/7 on 120 radio frequencies. All the CPC needs do, therefore, is have shifts of operatives trained to transcribe the broadcasts and send the punched tapes for decryption. The building is wonderfully melodramatic with hundreds of operatives, each spotlighted in an otherwise dark, vast echoing bunker, working to save the CPC from disaster. Except, by some means not revealed, the KMT decide their messaging system has been compromised and so shut down. This metaphorically leaves the CPC deaf so, not unnaturally, they persuade He Bin (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a blind piano tuner with super powers of hearing, to come and help them. He’s then able to retune all the radio equipment to find the original 120 stations on their new frequencies. Later he adds a few special channels where the leadership plot and plan their overall strategies. He does this not by inventing new technology for tuning the equipment to more precise frequencies. It’s the same twiddling of dials that mere mortals do, but he’s got the magic touch that only the blind can develop through years of sensory deprivation. As a reward for restoring the CPC’s overview, a specialist is brought back from America and performs a difficult operation to restore our hero’s long-lost sight. Later, in part because he’s illiterate, he’s feels inadequate when even the slightest error in interpreting the morse as it’s keyed could produce a major shift in meaning. Is the restoration of his sight diluting his power to hear accurately? Should he retreat back into the darkness to get the best results?
His motivation for this potential self-sacrifice does not seem to be political allegiance. For all he achieves hero status within the CPC, he’s in love with Xue Ning or Agent 200 (Xun Zhou) who recruited him. This sets up a difficult set of unfulfilled relationships. Agent 200 is distantly in love with the leader of Unit 701 Laogui or Guo Xingzhong (Xuebing Wang), but both are professional and never act on it. Because Xue Ning believes she will be killed in action sooner or later, she rejects He Bin’s advances and sets him up to marry Shen Jing (Mavis Fan). This gives him some degree of protection. The CPC is ruthlessly exploiting him and without someone to offer a little advice and comfort, he could easily self-destruct. So he’s buried in a loveless marriage of convenience while the other pair smile in resignation and pass on by.
So this is a very good film to look at with some very striking cinematography, particularly during the early part of the film showing the danger of spying in Hong Kong and a nicely judged way to meet and recruit our hero. It also has an elegant metaphorical subtext. But the way it’s constructed prevents it from generating any real tension. The whole point of thrillers with espionage overtones is to see our heroes face a challenge and then come through with the goods just in time to prevent the bad guys from pulling off their coup. Except after a great set-up, this film does not tell us anything about what the KMT cell in question is planning. All we know is that the leader is called Chungking and that he or she is one of five suspects. At the end of the film, we see the plan was to assassinate senior members of the CPC and blow up half a squadron of fighter jets. If we’d been aware of an act of terrorism on this scale from the outset, it would have generated real pressure as Unit 701 tried to identify the targets and track the explosives, detonators and guns. Sadly, being wise after the event is no substitute and does not retrospectively relieve the boredom that slowly permeates the film as it meanders its way through two hours of running time. It’s a shame. The Silent War could have been a great film.