Densely plotted, Shanghai-set spy tale is loaded with meaty production design and performances.
If the characters in East Wind Rain (Mat Ma Tran Chau Cang) and Shanghai had been real people. They couldn’t help but bump into each other. Set at the same time, in the same city (where it conveniently rains at moments of high drama). The two films are the flip-side of the same coin: Shanghai through western eyes. East Wind Rain through Chinese ones. The former is pulpier and more drenched in “exotic” atmosphere. While the latter has a more political plot and natural setting. Though East Wind is less hard-driven, both are equally entertaining on their own levels. Locally, East Wind plays into the whole fad for big-screen spy melodramas that The Message (2009) reaped last autumn.
Freed from the need to explain historical background or the city’s “orphan island” position to a Chinese audience. East Wind‘s script packs enough detail into its 112 minutes to fill a mini-series. Writer/producer Yang Jian previously worked with actor/director Liu Yunlong on the 34-part TV drama Conspiracy (2005). And his episodic screenplay, peppered with fade-outs, often seems like a super-condensed TV one.
The labyrinthine plot, largely centred on the MacGuffin of a missing roll of film, takes some concentration to follow. And is largely an excuse to field a strong lineup of character actors in meaty roles. Some, like the turncoat-for-hire of Ying Da and the gentleman power-broker of Hong Kong actor Zeng Jiang [Kenneth Tsang], come into their own in the second half, while the cultured spymaster of Takemoto Takayuki grows throughout the movie. Leads Liu (making his debut as a feature-film director) and Fan Bingbing move through the film on a separate star plane as tragic lovers caught up in the whirlwind of history, and both have a pulpy, romantic chemistry with each other.
With East Wind, Fan, 28, cements her position as China’s youngest old-style diva. But her dialogue in scenes with Liu is too poetically flowery, with no real emotional pull. Dressed to the nines, she looks stunning throughout but is more credible as a nightclub singer than as the character she’s later revealed to be. The supporting roles are more emotionally engaging, especially Li Xiaoran as a teacher-cum-spy and Yu Rongguang as a distrustful spy handler-cum-Beijing Opera performer (in a rare film reference to his actual roots).
The multilingual dialogue, which has large sections in Japanese, is let down by some embarrassing English bits; only Aires da Cruz, as a Jewish barman, plays in a way that sounds natural to native English-speakers. The movie is purportedly based on historical facts – that Communist spies knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack but thought the Americans would never believe them. But that’s never allowed to get in the way of a good spy yarn.
Shanghai, Dec 1941. Communist spy An Ming (Liu Yunlong), working as a nightclub pianist in the city’s International Settlement, learns from his Japanese source. South Manchuria Railway local manager Nakanishi Masahiro (Miura Kenichi), a fellow communist, that Japan is to attack Pearl Harbor.
However, following the assassination of two members of his unit. An Ming has no way of transmitting the unbelievable information to his superiors. Nakanishi Masahiro subsequently receives confirmation of the attack in a coded weather broadcast on Japanese radio (“East wind, rain”) and also hears that a roll of film containing major information is secretly on its way to him from a fellow high-placed sympathiser, Ozaki Hidemi (Dong Cheng), in Tokyo.
On the night of 7 Dec, Nakanishi Masahiro is arrested, the roll of film goes missing. And Japan declares war on the US, next day taking over the whole city. In the subsequent weeks, a battle of wits ensues between Japanese intelligence head Fujiki Yoshio (Takemoto Takayuki) and An Ming and his colleague Hao Birou (Li Xiaoran), a teacher at a refugee hostel, as both sides try to trace the roll of film. An Ming also comes under pressure from his new liaison officer. Fang Qianmo (Yu Rongguang). And from his girlfriend, nighclub singer Huanyan (Fan Bingbing), to leave Shanghai, but he refuses until his job is done.