Director: Cheng Er
Notable Cast: Tony Leung, Wang Yibo, Eric Wang, Zhou Xun, Huang Lei, Chengpeng Dong, Maggie Jiang, Zhang Jingyi, Hiroyuki Mori
Although the Japanese occupation of China has been the topic of umpteen-million Chinese films throughout their cinematic history, many different genres approach the subject in unique ways so that it still can feel fresh… with the proper execution. Hidden Blade, the latest film from director Cheng Er, leaps into the world of Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s during the Japanese occupation. It’s not a wholly original concept, in fact, Cheng Er dealt with similar subject matters in his previous effort The Wasted Times, but it’s an artful and tensely executed espionage film with an overt style that slices through each moment.
While the big draw of the film will be Tony Leung doing his thing in a nifty period setting, which we will get to momentarily, the most fascinating aspect of Hidden Blade is its almost dream-like narrative structure. While the first act features some stunning visuals and tense key moments, it practically drifts in a fluid manner through each sequence in a way that thinly draws some connections but never solidifies the ‘why’ or even ‘when’ they are occurring.
This allows Hidden Blade to play games with its audience. The film is inherently about the Chinese men and women who are working with the Japanese during the occupation of its time frame, but it’s immediately known that each one carries ulterior motives. Like the characters, who hide, reveal, or manipulate one another, the narrative does the same. As allegiances shift, the characters bounce through their navigation of multiple alliances and it’s just damn good espionage. It’s toying with the audience and it’s entertaining in that manner.
By the time the full story is coming together, which - to be fair - really doesn’t happen until the end of its final act, those moments from the opening are repeated but with the full context and feature all of the bluster and punch of its emotional weight. Ultimately, the narrative feels muddled because of its fluidity at times and it makes for a film that ponders aloud “why is this here?” but it’s also one that will grow in strength with repeated viewings.
This kind of fluid narrative allows the entire cast to deliver some intriguing performances. As mentioned above, Tony Leung is hard to beat and his layered delivery of dialogue and emotional subterfuge continues to be unparalleled. While it may not be a Wong Kar Wai performance, he ably handles the material with the utmost ease and powers the film forward with each moment.
This goes for the entirety of the cast too. Cheng Er is directing his ensemble, which includes some fantastic turns by Chengpeng Dong, Zhou Xun, and a delightfully subtle sinister run for Eric Wang, to thread so many hidden emotions behind dialogue and in moments of interaction. It is rather impeccable at times.
However, the biggest surprise of Hidden Blade might be the performance of Wang Yibo, who is co-headlining the film according to the poster. While his character almost seems more secondary at the beginning of the film, it becomes more prominent as the film unravels, and his performance only gains momentum with each big moment for him. What seems like a stoic performance initially becomes a choice performance tactic within the narrative and by the final moments of the film, one can see that he’s giving it his all to match a GOAT like Tony Leung in this film.
In fact, the big action sequence of Hidden Blade is when Yibo and Leung lock horns in an assassination attempt that gets gritty and visceral and, thankfully, director Cheng Er knows how to punch out an action set piece as well as he is delivering the tension and labyrinthian espionage tonalities. It’s a nice burst of excitement in a rather meticulously paced suspense thriller and deserves note for fans perhaps wanting a bit of explosiveness in their spy flicks.
All in all, Hidden Blade might be the kind of film running the formula about spies during the Japanese occupation of China in concept, but the execution is visually delectable, brilliantly subtle with its performances, and features some fantastic character storytelling. Although some might immediately pull on its Communist propaganda elements or its fluid style of narrative that doesn’t quite pop at all times, Hidden Blade is an impressive potboiler with some outstanding set pieces that any espionage fan will enjoy.