Alan Mak and Felix Chong, the writing and directing duo responsible for some of the more exciting Hong Kong action films to come out in the last decade such as Infernal Affairs (2002) and Overheard (2009) has released a new film called The Silent War. Its Chinese title translates into 'The Wind Listener', which never makes any sense until the last scene.
A mystery-drama featuring an A-list cast of Tony Leung and Zhou Xun, both of whom last worked together in the recent Derek Yee film The Great Magician (2011), The Silent War is a film of two halves - an involving first half marred by some poor pacing in the second hour.
Leung plays a blind piano tuner who gets thrust into the world of secret intelligence when he is rescued by a mysterious woman played by Zhou. Despite not being able to see, Leung's character boasts exceptional hearing, able to detect frequencies that a normal human being is incapable of.
Sent to sit behind a desk with radio equipment and a headphone, he is tasked with trying to sniff out channels that alleged traitors of his country use to communicate with one another. Set in the turbulent 1950s, The Silent War is a Chinese period drama with moments of intrigue, but it never fulfils its potential as an effective and suspenseful espionage picture.
From a visual standpoint, The Silent War is remarkably polished, featuring cinematography that is both slick and glossy. There is a lack of grit, but it doesn't matter. The filmmakers are not interested in how spies operate, but how their work can take a toll on their relationships with others.
Leung's character, while given the autonomy to operate freely in an acoustics lab, is trapped between the noble notion of serving his country, and the need to love someone or be loved. While the characters are considerably fleshed out on their own, and the chemistry between Leung and Zhou decent enough to last two hours, the motivations of each character remain vague at best, especially when a third character played by Mavis Fan joins the fold to make an uncomfortable love triangle.
The Silent War's intrigue dissipates towards the second hour, as the film becomes unnecessarily draggy, and this is despite the picture taking on the more conventional mould of a spy thriller with bits of action sprinkled in its climatic sequence. Perhaps the focus on romance and drama by the filmmakers seems to paint a more poetic, even tragic picture, when in reality, some of the events that unfold are merely manipulative.
The film is still notable for its use of sound - there are lots of rhythmic tapping of the Morse code that can be, well, therapeutic. And the climatic sequence, an intercutting of two sub-sequences - one solemn, the other thrilling, shows Mak and Chong at their finest.
Verdict: At times involving, and featuring a polished cinematography, the film unfortunately turns draggy in its second half.