MIXING old-school wartime spy thriller with distinctive Hollywood flavor and an exciting dash of Agatha Christie-whodunit style, it's certainly refreshing to see a Chinese period thriller like THE MESSAGE possesses an interesting facelift out of the usual expectation. As a cinematic viewpoint, the film is no doubt an exhilarating ride filled with visual galore and blessed with well-calculated performances.
Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, where Japanese Imperialists controlled a large number of China territory, there is a mysterious individual called Magnum is masterminding the deaths of few Japanese officers and Chinese co-conspirators. The Japanese army sees this as an ultimate threat and immediately looking forward to stop this act of terrorism by setting a trap to lure Magnum and the Resistance out into the open. At the beginning of the film, a female rebel (Liu Weiwei) is arrested for assassinated a government official (Duan Yihong) and is later being brought to torture for info. She refuses to speak, until the Japanese army smears her in beef paste and literally setting the dogs on her. In no time, she has no choice but to reveal the truth. From there, ambitious young Japanese counterintelligence officer Colonel Takeda (Huang Xiaoming) learns that resistance fighters have placed a mole within his department. In order to flush the mole out, he orchestrates an elaborate trap by planting a false message about a "meeting" in a remote seaside castle. At that particular night, five members of his department are required at the castle. He proceeds to lock them in and announces that one of them must be the mole, code-named Phantom. The five suspects are included the sultry and ice-cold Officer Li (Li Bingbing), a code-breaking expert; flirty Ms. Gu (Zhao Xun), who treats the investigation as a joke; Captain Wu (Zhang Hanyu), a disgruntled officer who is still suffering insults from his father's shameful military career; openly gay Lieutenant Bai (Alec Su); and their older colleague Jin (Ying Da), a nervy officer who struggles to keep his cool during the course of the investigation. With the castle heavily-guarded and no one are allowed to leave under any circumstances, they have to stay until the Phantom is revealed. Each of their bedrooms are tapped, so the Japanese army can listen every of their possible important conversations. Soon, one by one are pulled aside for separate interviews and it doesn't take long before tensions are boiling high. Bai is the first victim who suffers the consequence, especially after he is accused for being the mole judging from a handwriting analysis. He is dragged into the torture chamber as he cries for innocence but later dies from heavy beating. However it becomes clear that he was being set up, and Takeda knows that he have to do better to unmask Phantom before it's all too late.
Based on a novel by Jia Mai, Chen Kuo-Fu and Zhang Jialu's adapted screenplay is nevertheless thrilling, as they ape the ever-influential Agatha Christie-style that keeps you guessing all the while.
The only gripe is that the so-called whodunit isn't much as brilliant as one might expect. While the film tends to get overkill with the visual flourishes, it's quite forgivable. Without that forceful technique on display, the film is basically a stripped-down torture chamber drama in nature. For that reason alone, the flashy style employed here is surprisingly a hearty welcome. From dizzying establishing shots, sweeping crane shots, effective steadicam, and MTV-style cuts -- all excitingly lensed by cinematographer Jake Pollock -- to bombastic score by Michiru Oshima, the film's kinetic energy is simply too good to resist.
In the meantime, the star-studded cast are equally successful with both Li Bingbing and Zhou Xun deliver strong performances.