Filmmaking in modern China is a funny business. While the industry becomes more profitable and mainstream, scriptwriting has become more tepid and banal and directors are reduced to highly paid project babysitters whose directorial vision are secondary to the product. Just ask Felix Chong and Alan Mak, whose claim to fame include credits for the Infernal Affairs trilogy. It is all too possible that on the set of The Silent War, the duo, like their compatriots who have been flocking across the border in mainland productions, were nothing more than paid journeymen.
I say that because The Silent War is an espionage drama without espionage, suspense, paranoia, conflicting loyalties, or even dangerous romance. It has a protagonist who doesn't fit at all with the genre. For a spy film, The Silent War takes place in a world where physics works differently from our world, where spy agencies do things that would be seen as really stupid in our world. It could very well be a science fiction film — or it could be that the directors have written a script that's as tone deaf as it is badly researched.
Set after the Chinese civil war, the story tells of a blind man (Tony Leung) who apparently is China's answer to Marvel's Daredevil. His hearing is so sharp, accurate, and godly that the CCP recruits him to its espionage unit, which is engaged in a secret war with Chiang's KMT mainland operatives. His first mission which catapults him into the realm of the godly? Given that somehow KMT has realised its radio stations transmitting KMT coded messages have been intercepted by the CCP, all 120 radio stations have gone off the air, leaving the CCP spies literally deaf and figuratively blind. Chinese Daredevil's super hearing apparently enables him to suss out all 120 radio stations on their new frequencies again. And for the rest of the film, Asian Daredevil sits in various soundproof rooms listening to what I imagine are interference patterns in radio static created by even more hidden KMT spy radio channels. For all that his powers of super listening, how does he find the hidden radio channels? Like every human — by slowing turning the dial on an ordinary radio set!
This is a spy thriller, so even more we expect the script to be plausible and set in the real world. The acceptable aberrations are Chinese Daredevil and his spy agency, which set us in the spy thriller genre. As any spy or war film fan will tell you — and they're probably the only ones interested in a film about ham radios and cryptography — this is not how spy channels work, this is not how RADIO itself works. The more the film tries to show us the workings of an espionage unit, the more you'd want to scream at the rubbish depicted.
That's just the beginning of their misadventures, sadly. As a spy thriller, Mak and Chong fail to provide any indication of the stakes that are involved. Why are all these people stuck in bunkers listening to morse code channels that are transmitting 24/7 on the same frequency (yes, this is how far wrong they get about military and espionage communications)? You never know. Worse yet, the film doesn't make you feel there are high stakes involved. There's no suspense because there's no attempt at writing a mystery or suspense film.
What about romance? No sparks exist between Asian Daredevil and his handler (Zhou Xun). There's no romance development although much is made of a mustard seed of a romance between them. There's a femme fatale who comes in between them — a top CCP cryptologist whose dad is actually the KMT spy chief and codemaster. Except she's not a femme fatale, all suspicions of her position are waved away with one line, and she ends up happily and uninterestingly married to Asian Daredevil.
I haven't quite seen anything like The Silent War where the film could literally write itself as a spy thriller or noir — and yet what we eventually see on screen can only be described as an indifferent and tone-deaf effort. For a great spy movie set in China, we still recommend the far superior and competent Lust, Caution (also starring Tony Leung).