Home > Film > The Message or Feng sheng (2009)

The Message or Feng sheng (2009)

Around 65 BC, a Roman poet called Horace wrote down what Wilfred Owen was later to call one of the greatest lies of all time, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. Translated it asserts it to be sweet and honourable to die for one’s country. Since one tribe rushed through the jungle to attack another in the days before we committed our history to paper, the leaders of men have spent their lives in a search for convenient ways of encouraging those men to sacrifice themselves for an idea. And what bigger idea is there than one’s country? Nationalism and the mindless devotion it inspires in many has caused more deaths than most other causes apart from religion. That said, there’s always been something impressive about battlefields where groups of combatants go at it with swords or more modern weapons. One can see bravery among those who should know better and run away. The more interesting form of combat comes in the world of espionage. Here there’s little honour as the whole basis of spying depends on lies and deception. Going back to Rome, the great defence lawyer, Cicero, could defend old soldiers by ripping off their togas in court to show they carried wounds on their chests but none of their back. If the enemy catch spies, they either turn or they die.

Li Bing Bing as the code breaker

 

The Message or Feng sheng (2009) is based on a novel of the same name by Jai Mai. The directors are Qunshu Gao and Kuo-fu Chen who shares the scriptwriting credits with Jialu Zhang. Both the book and the film are written as a homage to those who are prepared to put themselves at risk by spying on their enemies from within. Just as agents of the Allies went undercover in occupied Europe to collect intelligence on the Germans, so agents worked for the Chinese during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This film is set in 1942. Politically, this was a time of great difficulty since there was open conflict between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists. This complicated the resistance to the Japanese. The Message is set in Nanking in 1942 where the Japanese have established a puppet regime. A young Japanese officer Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) plans to rescue his poor reputation (due to the disgrace attaching to his family) by catching the leader of the local underground movement or, if that fails, the mole feeding him or her secret information. To achieve this end, he sends a false message through the Counter Insurgency Office. When the message leaks, this narrows the field of suspect to five people: Gu Ciameng (Zhou Xun), codebreaker Li Ningyu (Li Bing Bing), Jin Shenghuo (Ying Da), Captain Wu Zhiguo (Zhang Hanyu) and Colonel Bai Xiaonian (Alec Su). These suspects are invited to a “castle” where they can be interrogated.

Zhou Xun and Huang Xiaoming get down to basics

 

The investigation is run by Takeda with the assistance of Wang Daoxiang (Wang Zhiwen), a Chinese collaborator, with every room upstairs bugged, and the rooms in the basement kitted out with the right kind of facilities to loosen reluctant tongues. The problem for Takeda is simple. He could emerge from this a hero with proof of the mole’s identity, or he could kill all five. The loss of four innocent lives would probably keep the puppet regime safe for a few extra months but it would also see the end of his career, if not his life. They first try trickery to lure out the mole. When they think they have the right person, they try for a confession but, when torture is involved, there’s always doubt. People will say anything to make the pain stop.

Ying Da, Zhang Hanyu and Alec Su line up to deny guilt

 

The uncertainty on both sides is beautifully mirrored in the cinematography by Jake Pollock. There’s a magnificently gothic feel to all the indoor scenes, with light and shadow matched in with some very clever camera angles and tracking shots to create a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere. Whether it’s the team hunched over their recording equipment, striving to catch every word said by the suspects, or the five as they try to think of ways to prove themselves innocent, no-one looks confident. The directing is very sure-footed. Qunshu Gao and Kuo-fu Chen have done a very good job in bringing the book to the screen. It resonates powerfully with our modern notions of heroism and self-sacrifice for a cause. The cast also emerges covered in glory. Li Bing Bing won the Asian Film Award, Hundred Flowers Awards, and Golden Horse Award for Best Actress with Zhou Xun shortlisted. Huang Xiaoming and Alec Su also won awards. It was the Best Film at the Hundred Flowers Awards.

Wang Zhiwen as the Chinese investigator

 

Although it does become reasonably obvious who the mole must be as the investigation proceeds, there’s a really elegant coda at the end when the full story is revealed. It adds considerably to the emotional depth of the film. Insofar as the story must necessarily deal with the reality of torture, the way in which this is shown stays firmly on the right side. There are some Western films that stray into a more pornographic use of violence. This maintains a careful moral neutrality in keeping most of the violence off screen. Put all this together and you have an engrossing film as we work towards the reveal of the mole’s identity. The Message or Feng sheng is strongly recommended.

 

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  1. April 18, 2012 at 3:23 pm

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