The warring factions within Japan-occupied China during the Second Sino-Japanese War are perfect instruments for a complex period-set spy story. A Japanese intelligence officer’s allegiances could intersect with a Chinese collaborator working for the puppet government set up in Shanghai. They’d conflict with the spies of the Chinese nationalist resistance and those of the Chinese communists, bitter foes ostensibly in a united front as they attempt to get their country back before resuming their civil war. Political, ethnic and national ties offer hints to—but nothing conclusive about—a person’s objectives. To those whose familiarity with world conflict in the ‘30s and ‘40s begins and ends with the European theatre of World War II, Hidden Blade may feel a little impenetrable. Not understanding the rules of the game makes double-dealing tough to clock. But the handsome noir from writer/director Cheng Er skillfully makes the ideological crash (and inevitably propagandistic bent) part of the confounding atmosphere, shrouding it in smoke, food, mirrors and sake.
Piercing the haze, as he always does, is Tony Leung. A career of peering through cigarette smoke, of slinking down hallways and smoldering in close conversation, prepared his warm charisma to glow through even the thickest fog. The suave standby reunites with the time period and subject matter of his Ang Lee film Lust, Caution as Director He, who works in tense tandem with his Japanese superior Watanabe (Hiroyuki Mori) and two younger officers, the bespectacled and immediately skeevy Mr. Wang (Eric Wang), and the straight-from-K-pop-smooth Mr. Ye (Wang Yibo). Or does he?
Opposed to the Lee film, Hidden Blade swaps sexual tension for temporal confusion and replaces upsetting emotional entanglement between enemies with last-minute, crowd-pleasing, Party-approved reveals. The third film in a “China Victory Trilogy” celebrating their Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, Hidden Blade weaponizes its obtuse timeline and dialogue: The clearest element is, as expected, that the brave and put-upon Communists persevered against all odds and came out on top. But beyond and around that central takeaway (the only takeaway it was ever going to have), Hidden Blade builds an ornate labyrinth.
Cheng’s moody, high-contrast lighting compliments tensely framed compositions, where men sitting alone at tables or standing alone against mirrored walls anticipate the worst. Ye and his estranged ex can barely look at each other without a reflection playing middleman. The colors are dimmed but not washed out, tinting the film with nostalgia and heightening its thematic juxtapositions without draining it of life. The dark suits and crisp hair of the Chinese spies are sultry black holes compared to the relatively bright simplicity of khaki military uniforms. A sunny bike ride belies a gruesome rot; barking dogs and bloodstained floors lend a hellish ambience to the heroic actions inside an interrogation room. A pleasantly mobile camera takes it all in, furtively glancing over He’s shoulder in a crosscut tracking shot or languidly zooming out from his face. The allegiance-swapping story might only be costume jewelry, but it’s encased in a beautiful, comfortable genre casket.
Though its period is a perfect environment for collaborators, faux-llaborators and straight-up rebels to stew, Hidden Blade’s vignettes often seem like pebbles smoothed over by the river of time. There’s an eroded simplicity to it all, whether to the uncomplicated barbarism of the Japanese or the cut-and-dry interpersonal betrayal between those working for them—and it’s still hard to follow. When Cheng relies on his veterans (Leung and Hiroyuki) and his own abilities, the aesthetic more than compensates for the narrative shortcomings. But when the younger cast becomes the focus—especially Wang, whose wooden performance ends up taking the lead as He’s heir apparent—they push Cheng’s cynical neo-noir stylization into splashy, indulgent melodrama. Streaky tears running down Ye’s immobile face and an applause-seeking, violent execution are antithetical to the quiet confidence Cheng exudes in his best scenes. Leung and Hiroyuki are seasoned enough to soften the clunky script. The others collide with it head-on.
Though there’s a level of frustration that comes with its (sometimes unintentional) level of concealment, Hidden Blade can be sharply understated. Even in its biggest moments—a climactic brawl, sprinkled with detailed prop work and compelling production design—Cheng’s finesse keeps you glued to the lovely cipher. Inside the story of overlapping loyalties and unforgivable war crimes is a mood piece composed of Leung’s magnetic gaze, the crunching consumption of twitching drunken shrimp, and the layers of meaning baked into pastry’s flaky laminations. While China’s propaganda department made sure the film was imbued with a definitive moral, there’s a subtle pleasure in a spy story otherwise intoxicated with its own smokescreen.
Director: Cheng Er
Writer: Cheng Er
Starring: Tony Leung, Yibo Wang, Chengpeng Dong, Xun Zhou, Eric Wang, Lei Huang
Release Date: February 17, 2023
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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