A mysterious earthquake leads to a company-wide conspiracy in Xue Xiaolu’s thriller.
“Check the gate.”
China has been making some huge steps lately in capturing western audiences and creating wider appeal films. It was only a couple of years ago that Zhang Yimou, after his wuxia epics did well overseas, to cast Matt Damon as the main character of a movie about the Great Wall of China. And while the single most populous country in the world hasn’t tried this before, this new era of filmmaking is doubling down on both Western-led films, and ones that emulate that Hollywood feel.
Such is the case for The Whistleblower, which sees its two main characters – Mark (Lei Jiayin) and Siliang (Tang Wei) – working for a multinational energy company, who get embroiled in a massive conspiracy after an earthquake in Malawi destroys a village. The earthquake can be traced back to the company’s gas refinery, but before they can get to the bottom of it, Mark and Siliang are chased down, and their lives promptly ruined. It’s pretty clear how the film will go down, and its message is blatant right from the opening shot, but I still found myself having an OK during this movie.
It’s largely thanks to its claustrophobic, tense and well-directed cat-and-mouse sequences that the film was as watchable as it was. Director Xue Xiaolu is one of China’s most popular female directors and she’s amassed this respect through solid movies which do well at the box office. The Whistleblower is exactly that kind of film – one that’s bound to make bank in theatres, but also is keen to needle its way into other, international markets. It’s achieving this through its big budget, ever-improving (if still somewhat lacking) visual effects and a story that travels the world and speaks many languages – literally and otherwise.
The Whistleblower’s faults are many – and one of which lies in its struggle to show any real sincerity, with the majority of tender or sweet scenes receiving something of a round of laughter at the screening I was at and, yeah, it’s not to see why. It loses some of its goodwill during the overly long ending, where Mark is lauded for his actions and is seen as a hero by his wife and child. It feels disingenuous and can even spoil the viewing experience because it suggests that everything you’ve seen up until this point was all for the sake of propaganda lite. It doesn’t help either that one of the film’s emotional cruxes is a kid just reciting lines from The Dark Knight.
And this is strange because for all intents and purposes, this film feels a hell of a lot like it was made with a Western audience in mind. We’ll undoubtedly forgive (or just begrudgingly accept) the usual contrivances, coincidences and plot holes we’d see in whatever Liam Neeson vehicle is out this year, but the end message feels a lot more manipulative than expected. It’s not that the theme – that corruption should be exposed – is bad, far from it, but it’s resolved so ham-fistedly and fake-feeling that you’re gonna cringe at least once or twice.
Back on the positives, unlike many films of its ilk, The Whistleblower’s English acting isn’t entirely terrible. Don’t get me wrong, it would be laughed out of the theatre were this a Western production, but it’s mostly believable and John Batchelor has such a fun time hamming it up as Harrison that it’s hard to really hold any of this against the movie. Everyone involved seems to be doing good enough that even if some moments are goofy, artificial or dumb they at least seem like they’re happening to real people.
The question is: is this film really worth watching? Well … I mean, sort of. Yeah. I don’t regret seeing it, and there were some actually decent moments throughout especially during the chase sequences. It didn’t need to be as long, or complicated, but I appreciate and can respect the effort that went into the scope of the production. There were times when I felt like I was watching an entire TV series, but it’s good to see this level of ambition, regardless of outcome. In a lot of ways, The Whistleblower feels like a stepping stone towards something larger, more mainstream and global for China and if it means more international projects, then that’s even better.
Verdict: Try as they might, the filmmakers couldn’t quite mine enough for a great film.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
Emotional crux: A line lifted straight from The Dark Knight
Conspiracies: Like, fifteen
Gates: Gotta check ’em
A leaf: Not a forest
The Whistleblower (2019)
Also known as:
Director: Xue Xiaolu
Writer: Xu Xiaolu
Lei Jiayin – Mark
Tang Wei – Zhou Siliang
Qi Xi – Judy
John Batchelor – Harrison
Ce Wang – Peter
Brett Cousins – Tom Baker
Jane Bowner – Nyasa