After finding success in intimate dramas (Ocean Heaven) and romantic comedies (Finding Mr Right, Book of Love), director Xue Xiaolu tries her hand at the thriller with The Whistleblower, a Chinese-Australian co-production. It follows Ma Ke (Lei Jiayin), a Chinese expatriate working for an energy company in Melbourne that is on the verge of closing a lucrative deal with a Chinese conglomerate. Working for that conglomerate, and married to its CEO, is Zhou Siliang, Ma’s old flame. During a luxurious celebration of the upcoming deal, they briefly rekindle their romance even though they are both married – he happily to Judy (Qi Xi) and her on the verge of divorce. Soon after, Zhou Siliang is declared dead in a plane crash with several members of her team, only to reappear days later, reaching out to him: she knows too much about her husband’s illegal dealings and is on the run from him: furthermore, a recent earthquake near the company’s mines in Africa may not be what what it seems…

There’s four distinct phases to The Whistleblower. First comes a somewhat laborious set-up, marred by stilted English dialogue sometimes spoken with cringe-inducting unease (Lei Jiayin struggles a lot). Then the film kicks into action mode, pleasantly entertaining despite offering nothing new (the old chase through a crowded train station is starting to need fresh new spins), and resorting to tropes that are somewhat beneath the class Xue Xiaolu is aiming at (precisely, aim: the henchmen here can’t hit an elephant in a corridor). At this point the action also moves to Africa, and an air of ridiculousness starts appearing: Lei Jiayin and Tang Wei infiltrating an African mine in blackface isn’t so much offensive (the aim is clearly not racist here) as it is absurd. What follows is the film’s third phase, and its best: a clever twist and some effective surprises come in short succession, re-shuffling the narrative cards and adding a heretofore missing sense of poignancy: there, the plight and responsibility of the whistleblower becomes palpable.

It must be said that while Lei Jiayin and Tang Wei make for a very fine leading duo, Qi Xi steals many a scene. She’s given the ultimate thankless role in the thriller genre: the “suffering, resentful wife” – but she imbues it with such aching pain, dignity and strength, that much more than the will-they-won’t-they chemistry of Lei and Tang, it’s her that the audience (or at least this writer), it’s her crumbling marriage that is the more compelling relationship in the film. Throughout the film, there is an unbalance between a serious, somewhat self-important tone, and some events stretching disbelief beyond all recognition (watch out for the most outrageous escape plan in a while, requiring to jump through a window with hands tied, to land in an open-roof trash truck at the correct half-second); now, in the fourth and final phase, this unbalance is accentuated, with the unfolding of a plan that relies so much on serendipity, it’s like Xue Xiaolu couldn’t quite shake off her romantic comedy roots after all. And to have a full quote from The Dark Knight in the emotional pay-off (one of Nolan’s most specious and empty quotes at that) ends things on a puzzling note.

Long Story Short: The Whistleblower is alternatively solemn and silly, smart and clumsy, often stretching believability beyond recognition yet shot through with moments of real poignancy (often due to Qi Xi’s scene-stealing turn). **1/2

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