[Shenzhen] Spy dramas spook screens (Sep 30)
2009-September-27 Source: Szdaily web edition
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A promotional photo for "The Message"

Chinese wartime spy dramas have been bloomed on TV in recent years. Next week that genre hits the big screen with the spy thriller "The Message", which is about the shadowy lives of secret agents.

Although it is a movie made to celebrate the 60th birthday of the People's Republic of China, according to some who attended a limited preview screening at the Coastal City Cinema on Tuesday, there's a world of difference between "The Message" and other patriotic movies made for the National Day holidays.

Set during China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), "The Message" in Chinese with English subtitles, is loosely adapted from a novel by Mai Jia. Following a series of assassination attempts on officials of the Japanese-controlled puppet government, a Japanese spy chief gathers a group of suspects in a mansion house on a seaside cliff to flush out the planted agent. A tense game of "cat and mouse" ensues as the Chinese code-breaker attempts to send out a crucial message while protecting his/her own identity.

One reason for the growing popularity of spy thrillers is the strict set of restrictions placed by the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV (SARFT) on the broadcast times and content of crime TV series in 2004.

"Viewers aren't happy about the lack of crime shows, which are packed with drama and suspense, so some directors try spy stories",said Jiang Wei, writer and director of smash spy TV series "Lurk".

Spy flicks are cheaper to make than war films or TV series but still captivate audiences because of their dramatic plots, said Tan Fei, entertainment industry veteran and culture critic.

In 2006, the TV adaptation of Mai's best-selling novel "Plot Against" became a small-screen darling. The actors who played main roles became celebrities overnight.

A flurry of similar shows followed, the most popular of which was "Lurk", which started airing this year.

Viewers were hooked to its vivid depiction of a Communist spy infiltrating the Nationalist ranks in the 1940s. Some even came to take the plotline as a guidebook to office politics.

And Ang Lee's 2007 film "Lust, Caution" about an ordinary girl who gets caught up in the cloak-and-dagger world made an even bigger stir. While much of the hullabaloo was about the steamy sex scene, the dramatic storyline also captivated viewers.

"People like spy thrillers because they have few opportunities to know much about the lives and work of spies," Tan added. "These shows satisfy their curiosity.

And curiosity was the driving force for "The Message" which was co-directed by Chen Kuo-fu from Taiwan and Gao Qunshu from the mainland.

Chen, who also wrote the screenplay, is a dynamo when it comes to creating suspense.

His last directorial work, "Double Vision" was one of the most successful thrillers in Taiwan. Gao rose to fame after a TV series about 13 murder cases. He also has a knack for keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.

Production Company Huayi Brothers has kept a tight lid on the ending of "The Message". To make certain it stays secret until the Sep 30 premiere, all cast and crew members signed contracts with the firm that impose a 100,000 RMB (USD) fine on anyone who doesn't keep his lips sealed.

And the directors also produced seven versions, so viewers won't know which will end up in theaters.

Despite all the pre-release secrecy, Chen said he isn't worried the first viewers will spoil it for the rest.

"Suspense is an important element for a spy thriller, but it isn't everything," said Chen. "Watching the film is a lot of fun. It's like, you open a pot and find out what the food is, but that won't spoil your appetite for it."

Editor: Miranda
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