To be honest, I didn't care too much about the film going in – part of that was the mental fatigue I was harboring after having sat through dozens of films in a short time. If it's good, bonus, otherwise ... meh.
As it turns out, this one is rather good. There are certain things I think the film could do better but on the whole, The Message is a genuinely taut and rather flashy psychological thriller that becomes more involving as it goes along.
The movie is set during WWII in China, and centers around a Japanese officer (played by, ahem, Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming/黄晓明 ... I guess they couldn't find a single famous Japanese actor who can speak Mandarin) who is seeking to make a name for himself by setting up a trap to smoke out a dangerous mole among the Chinese collaborationists. The mole is known to go by the name of Phantom, and has already successfully implemented a number of assassinations; though the assassins are sometimes caught, as we see in the opening scene of the film, and really ghastly things happen to the captured assassins. (There is remarkable gender equality in this story, by the way.)
To weed the mole out, the Japanese officer sends out decoy information, and then enlists the help of four Chinese collaborationists who function at the highest level of Japanese confidence in decrypting messages – and that's when the hunt begins ...
And the characters really go for broke in their mission, as expressed pointedly by this rather nice line: "宁可错杀，不能错放。" (Better to kill the wrong person than to let the culprit go.)
I say the film is flashy, because despite the fact that the movie is a period piece, the directors seem to like to go into visual effects mode when they can, such as animations showing the transmission of a telegraph message through telegraph boxes and then cables, or an animated background which flashes the secret messages that are sent about. The vfx aren't especially great, just adequate.
In fact, even the music occasionally sounds modern, even using what approximates electronic beats (in particular, during a montage sequence where the four Chinese collaborationists were tasked to write about something).
Story-wise, the plotting is satisfyingly smart, in the sense that it does stay at least a step ahead of the audience, and doesn't telegraph the solution to the mystery to the audience, and happily does not assume the audience to be stupid. Also, the characters in the film do actually come across as smarter than the audience; I emphasised that because it is an exceedingly rare thing nowadays. The twists and turns are well-designed, and like an Agather Christie murder mystery I found myself thinking one set of solutions, and then revising as another twist hits. I had a guess at the final twist, and I thought I nailed it, but it wasn't, it was something else, and something else plausible at that. I can buy it. Not bad.
There are some rather brutal scenes in the film – when a female hostage is put through coercive interrogation, you wouldn't be able to guess what the thick rope is for. (No, it is not to hang her till just before the point of asphyxiation.) In fact, I would say that a few of the torture methods are novel onscreen.
Zhou Xun/周迅 appears here as one of the Chinese collaborationists, and perhaps due to her high profile, she does come across with the strongest personality among all the characters.
By the way, note that we are supposed to see the Chinese collaborationists as the main characters of the story, and actually pick among them to root for. I wonder how some of the more conservative Chinese audiences would take to that idea.
Already, plans are afoot to shoot the prequel to the film, with Takeshi Kaneshiro taking on a main role.
Did I Like It? Not bad at all.
Did I Fall Asleep? Nope.