Each year China delivers a couple of big-budget, A-grade productions sporting incredibly impressive production values, an expensive cast and featuring larger than life storylines. While these films are usually quite fun and amusing, The Message [Feng Sheng] takes a smaller, more stylish route with all this bling and glamor while still trying to dazzle the audience every chance it gets. The result is rather pleasant indeed.
Let there be no doubt that Chen and Gao had a lot of money to burn on this project. From the completely overblown intro title sequence to the hyper-detailed cinematography and the stellar cast, money is dripping from just about every pore. In turn it comes with a healthy dose of propaganda, though nothing worse than your common good vs bad stereotyping prevalent in almost every big budget flick out there.
The start of the film seems to promise a big scale historic espionage production but things take a rather surprising turn early on in the film. A selected group of individuals is rounded up and brought to a secluded castle. Once they arrive they are forced to stay there until the mole is found. The remainder of the film is spent inside or around this castle, safe the epilogue at the very end of the film.
The aim of the government is to try and uncover the Phantom, a master-class spy who keeps the resistance informed. At face level the interrogations are friendly and humane, but with each passing day the darker and more mean-spirited intentions of the government officials come to light. Finding The Phantom is crucial and nothing will stop them, even if this means killing a few innocent people to set an example.
On a visual level the film is absolutely stunning. Rather traditional in a sense, with very detailed lighting and cinematography, only occasionally spruced up with some more modern techniques. You could frame each single shot and make a stunning exhibition if you wanted. Chen and Gao also make perfect use of the setting they're handed, almost turning the castle into a character of its own.
The soundtrack is decent but betrays its more commercial backgrounds. It's a little too melodramatic and overblown at times. It doesn't become irritating and it never really sits in the way of the film, but it's not exactly helping out either. A real shame because in combination with the superb visuals this could've been something truly special.
As for the acting, nothing to complain there. Zhou and Li form a strong duo, Xiaoming Huang is the perfect adversary, constructing a characters that's a lot more human than it ought to be. These films are usually not really about acting power but with such a selected group of people and such a limited setting it does help to bring the story to life.
The Message is a simple yet smart film. It doesn't dazzle with sudden revelations and twists (though there are a few present), but it applies them wisely and with a pleasant dose of wit. By the time the film is ready to lay down all its cards on the table there's an enjoyable tension that actually makes you curious to the final reveal. A rarity these days.
The epilogue is a little long and rather keen to explain, though I must admit that some elements really could do with some explanation (like the song that's featured a couple of times during the film). This makes that the film never feels over-explicative or dumbed down, but respects the audience's intelligence. It's all about balance and the director's duo seem to have found it here.
The Message is visually stunning, smart, atmospheric and even a little tense near the end. It could've done with a better, more subtle soundtrack but as it is the film works fine on all levels, delivering a rich and pleasant time amongst spies tucked away in dark, cold castles. Good stuff and recommended for a wide audience.