Nanking, China, 1942. The nation is under Japanese occupation and the puppet government is running the country from its Nanking headquarters. However, a recent run of assassination attempts has led the political elite to become increasingly paranoid about the presence of a spy in their ranks, leading cunning Japanese officer Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) to put a plan in motion that will narrow down the list of suspects. Takeda sends a false message around the office and, when that information is repeated in a coded communication, he realises that the spy must be one of five operatives: Captain Wu (Zhang Hanyu), code breaker Li (Li Bingbing), Colonel Bai (Alec Su), Councilor Jin (Ying Da) or stenographer Gu (Zhou Xun).
These assembled suspects are promptly shipped out to a remote stone castle where each operative is subjected not only to interrogation, but also to torture, with Takeda aiming to uncover the identity of the mole – codenamed ‘Phantom’ – as a means of learning the whereabouts of the rebel organisation’s figurehead. Takeda maintains a calm façade throughout the proceedings, but it soon becomes apparent that he is running the operation for reasons that go beyond patriotic duty.
The Message is a model of tightly wound narrative efficiency, with the period and its turbulent political climate being swiftly established through an opening montage of newspaper headlines that chronicle the on-going efforts of the resistance movement, while the vibrancy of street parties and swinging nightclubs are contrasted with the dour formality of military offices. When the action moves to the castle, which is as ominous as it is opulent, co-directors Chen Kuo-Fu and Gao Qunshu make the most of impressively designed interiors that range from the dank dungeon where the most severe interrogations are carried out, to the bugged bedrooms in which the operatives forge uneasy alliances. Some effort has been made to visually update this otherwise old-school spy thriller by integrating visual effects that suggest the telegraphic transmission of messages, but such sequences are an arguably unnecessary addition when the premise sets up so many dramatic possibilities.
Although based on the third in a trilogy of spy novels by Mai Jia, this screen adaptation offers a self-contained narrative that keeps the propaganda associated with mainland China wartime dramas to a relative minimum and ratchets up the tension through a series of well-acted confrontations; Li picked up the Best Actress trophy at the 46th Golden Horse Awards for her performance as the vulnerable code breaker, but Zhang’s tough-as-nails veteran and Zhou’s quick-witted party girl are equally noteworthy. Pushing the limits of screen violence, Chen and Gao put each suspect through a brutal torture sequence, with the main players ably conveying selfless determination under extreme duress. Ultimately, any game of cat-and-mouse is only as good as its antagonist, and this one has a splendid villain in Takeda, who has no qualms about taking torture to the next level, on the basis that it is ‘better to kill the wrong person than let the culprit go.’
As an unashamed wartime potboiler, The Message largely conforms to type and is as impersonally assembled as its director’s subsequent contemporary action film Wind Blast (2010), but the strength of its scenario and some sterling performances in what could have been stock roles ensure that it makes for satisfying entertainment.
An earlier version of this review was posted at The Big Picture.