The Silent War takes place during the conflict between the China Republic Government and the Kuomintang in the 1950s. Despite the massive team and extensive equipment at their disposal, espionage unit 701 somehow can’t track down enemy mastermind “Chungking”. They need the aid of a blind man, He Bing (Tony Leung), who has a superhuman sense of hearing. This plot veers into improbability and spoils the period drama that The Silent War seemed initially to be.
The actual espionage in this film is complicated and, at times, surprising and quite gripping. I had to pay close attention to keep up with unfolding events and even with the subtitles (something that rarely happens). However, the character of He Bing is just silly. His Daredevil-esque abilities cheapen the feats of intelligence and bravery that other characters possess. Scenes where he intently listens to enemy signals are sensationalised through camera swoops, slow-mo, and overlaid images. His “eccentric” japing around also isn’t funny in the slightest. Leung is fine but not notable in the role.
Almost everything good about this film comes from Zhang Xuening. She’s a totally dedicated operative, played with great restraint and subtlety by Zhou Xun. The pointless love triangle in which Xuening deflects Bing’s attractions (and subsumes her own feelings) by pairing him up with decoder Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) is only made watchable through Xun’s performance. Not to mention, her fashion sense is impeccable throughout. It remains puzzling, however, that Xuening can ascend to the leadership of 701, and still pursue solo missions that put her out on the front lines…
Aside from Xun, the costuming, and the plot twists, there’s not much else to like about The Silent War. The pace is a crawl for most of its middle. The overall context of this conflict is ignored. Even the Kuomingtang’s dastardly goal is only revealed a little before the end. The film could have benefited from having some le Carré-style cynicism and subtlety in its approach to this inherently low-key espionage – but given that Chinese cinema now plays a duel role of propraganda, that was never going to happen.