WHO IS UNDERCOVER (2015) review

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Fan Jianhui’s Who is Undercover cashes in on the success of classy and starry Chinese spy thrillers like Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s The Silent War or Gao Qunshu and Chen Kuo Fu’s superb The Message, with a story that borrows heavily from the latter film (though set slightly earlier in Chinese history).  In 1934, the secret services of the Kuomintang government round up suspects (including Lin Chi Ling and Gillian Chung) in a military base and torture them in an attempt to identify the undercover communist agent among them while on the outside, the head of the underground communist party (Tony Leung Ka Fai) tries to control the damage and free his agent, known under the codename “The Joker”. Beyond a shared premise, Who is Undercover is often so strikingly similar to The Message that there’s more than a whiff of plagiarism about it. The way the story unravels (with a mix of tragedy and mystery, regular torture scenes, an emphasis on coding and constant twists and scenes replayed in flashbacks to reveal their true meaning), the arc and hidden identity of some of the main characters, and key plot points (which we won’t reveal not to spoil either film) are exactly the same. A few scenes are basically transpositions of ones found in The Message, striking the same dramatic beats with the same narrative or visual tricks. At some point there’s even a key line of dialogue that is a verbatim repetition of one heard in the 2009 film, carrying the same implications. In the end, there’s enough differences that it doesn’t constitute a remake, but enough similarities that it feels redundant and borders on shameless copying.

But beyond its questionable degree of inspiration, Who is Undercover has a few other, more crippling problems. The stakes and main characters are introduced in such a vague and rushed way that it becomes hard to care about what happens next. The film’s short runtime (85 minutes have elapsed when the credits roll) doesn’t allow for the kind of development or sprawl that the director is clearly aiming for. What’s worse, the film’s complexity feels incredibly forced, with a sheer quantity of twists that borders on parody : seemingly every single moment in the first 50 minutes carries a hidden meaning that is revealed in the film’s incredibly plodding and thuddingly explanatory final 30 minutes. Because of the muddled storytelling and underdeveloped characters, there is a number of tear-jerking scenes and big emotional payoffs that feel unearned and fall miserably flat. And while The Message managed show the torture as little as possible but still convey its visceral and dramatic impact, Who is Undercover pummels the spectator with protracted, cringe-inducing scenes of torment. In the end, despite fine production values and a good cast (though only Vivian Wu and Tony Leung Ka Fai leave a mark), this is a derivative story told poorly.

Long Story Short : A good cast and fine productions values can’t hide the fact that Who is Undercover is half-baked and muddled, in addition to being an uncomfortably close rehash of the excellent 2009 film The Message. *1/2

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