Monday, October 20, 2008

[TIFF 2008 Review] The Code (暗号) (World Premiere)

The Code's 507

The Code has an excellent premise which succinctly introduced the fictional espionage world in which the Detective Office 5 operates in the city of Kawasaki. Like an MI6 or CIA equivalent, their agents and operatives go without names, and are referred to by 3 digit numbers starting with 5, and distinct uniforms of black suits and bowler hats. Could have been a classic in the making, if not for the overwrought plot weighed down by plenty of confused, emotional baggage between its characters.

The movie begins a few years ago, and at a frenetic pace gripped by unknown terrorist bomb threats throughout the city. The challenge for the authorities is to defuse all the bombs or suffer unrepairable damage to lives and property, and the bombs could be stopped if the codes attached to them are deciphered. We're then introduced to the Information Science Lab within Detective Office 5, and it elevates mathematics geeks to god-like status with sole reliance on their keen abilities. Credit must be given to director Kaizo Hayashi and the visual effects team for jazzing up this segment to entertain, and not let the audience be underwhelmed by plain numbers and mathematical theorems.

The gem in the organization is 507 (Kikunosuke Onoe), a code breaker extraordinaire with skills par none, but like all knights with chinks in his armour, his detective skills are found to be wanting, and in his latest requested mission to go to Shanghai to crack a mysterious code tattooed onto the body of a cabaret singer Meilan, his lack of keen instincts for danger make him quite vulnerable, if not for a card like gadget that would make James Bond's Q very proud.

Being set in the Chinese city of Shanghai, there were some painful spoken dialogue in Mandarin, though you have to admire the actors' tenacity to get their diction as correct as possible. Villains too were rather cardboard (Chinese Triad) with plenty of goons and over the top characters who tend to overact. Villains also tend to lapse into unnecessary soliloquys which extend the unnecessary overlong last act, which doesn't seem to want to end with characters refusing to die off cleanly.

Bloated by subplots such as an unnecessary and cardboard romance, 507 actually disappears most of the time and the story shifted focus to the vendetta of a mysterious sharpshooter Mr Shiina, and his once colleague and now Chairman of Detective Office 5, Sonny, as if to contain a separate movie by itself in its back story about the two (now old) men, their invincibility, longevity and marksmanship which is inspired by the Wild West, cowboy hats, six shooters and all. Attention is also closely required to track all the revelations in relationships, shifting loyalties, double and triple crossing amongst all the characters involved.

Like the movie warned in the beginning, there is no clear cut heroic figure in the story as the Detective Office 5 has no mavericks, and this remains true. However, I suppose if response to his film is good, there would always be room for sequels, and staying true to mantra, there are more than enough characters to be created out of the remaining 5-hundred numbers. An excellent start for the first 10 minutes, before the pace slows considerably. Those expecting much code-breaking action given the title will be disappointed to find out that there's not much of such situations for the hero to exercise his abilities, which is a pity.

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