Film Review – Hidden Blade
There are few films that evoke atmosphere and mood as well as Er Cheng’s Hidden Blade (2023). A spy thriller set in Japanese-occupied China during the height of WWII, the tone and visuals have such rich textures that every frame looks like an oil painting. Compositions place characters in smoky backrooms, lush clubs, and secret lairs. It’s within these confines that plans, interrogations, and hushed conversations take place to decide the fates of all. There’s a lot of tiny machinations happening throughout, and admittedly those unfamiliar with the time and place may have trouble keeping up. But on a purely aesthetic basis, this is a slick and handsomely made production. I often found myself sitting back to take in all the eye candy.
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, my knowledge of this era is lacking. According to the production notes, the story involves a covert task force of Chinese agents assigned to infiltrate Japanese espionage groups. Their goal: obtain information, recruit allies, and kill traitors. On screen, this dynamic plays out in a series of interactions between Chinese and Japanese spies. Because there are so many moving parts, where characters work undercover and speak in multiple languages, there is a back and forth of allegiances. Motivations are constantly in flux. Cheng does not hold the audience’s hand. From the beginning, the narrative takes off running, and it is left to us to keep track of all the twists and turns. Cheng willingly cuts in and out of scenes, sometimes in mid-sentence. The editing jumps back and forth in time, showing events prior to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor through the end of the war. This unrestrained, stream-of-conscious approach will prove difficult for some. At one point two characters engaged in a brawl whom I initially thought were allies. Those new to this history would benefit from bringing a pad and paper.
Among the covert operatives is Mr. He (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung). Describing himself as “a handler,” Mr. He survived the bombings of Guangzhou in 1937 and moved up the ranks to become an important asset to China’s resistance. Mr. He’s specialty is in his interrogation skills, using a combination of charm and menace to gather important data and sus out potential enemies. The opening scenes are rife with intensity, as Mr. He’s interviews will have him being friendly at first, only to switch gears and become dangerous and threatening. Cheng and Leung take a page out of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), drawing comparisons to Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Hans Landa, who also specialized in the art of interrogation. Mr. He’s movements must be subtle and precise – the slightest error can blow up his entire operation. His interactions with Japanese officers are filled with suspense. Leung is a master in acting with slight facial gestures. His talents are once again put on display with his role.
Where Mr. He is calm, cool, and collected, fellow agent Mr. Ye (Yibo Wang) is the opposite. Mr. Ye is a brash enforcer, willing to use his fists at a moment’s notice. Wang is a famous musician and dancer, and he utilizes his physical abilities to the character’s benefit. Mr. Ye feels like a ticking time bomb. Wang’s face exudes fury, inhabiting a man who seems only to exist for his mission. When his work and relationships clash, Mr. Ye beats up an entire squad of soldiers to let off steam. Leung and Wang make for a fascinating pairing. While Leung still looks fit and trim and hasn’t lost any of his superstar luster, his face is now lined with age and experience. That added element contrasts with Wang’s baby face. Their respective characters are cut from the same mold but couldn’t be any more different in personality and temperament.
Without a doubt, the real star of the show is the art direction and production design. From the sets, props, costuming, to make-up and hairstyling, the period recreations shimmer. Everything looks plush and finely tuned – hair is fixed in such a way that every strand looks like it was meticulously put in place. Cheng incorporates a clear noir motif, with characters sporting fedoras and driving classic cars over rain drenched streets. In one scene, Mr. He wears his hat and coat as though they were extensions of his very being. When he walks out into the rain, he could easily be mistaken for a Humphrey Bogart stand in. The camerawork paint scenes with a heightened sense of reality. Shops and buildings are framed symmetrically to accentuate the artificiality – an allegory for the agents’ hidden schemes. The camera will capture action in slow motion, to highlight perspective. This all adds to a vibrant yet haunting presentation. Moments of brutality – such as the sequence involving laborers and wet cement – are poetic and terrifying at the same time.
Unfortunately, many of the female performers don’t get as much opportunity as their male counterparts. Outside of a rare occurrence, the female characters are mostly regulated to symbolic concepts. They are either placed in the middle of a nightclub or slowly walking down the street, with a cool look on their faces. When they are given a chance to shine, they either butt heads against the male characters or fall victim to the mission. Those not paying close attention could easily miss the fact that Mr. He has a wife. The narrative pays such little attention to her that she is merely an afterthought. Luckily, Jingyi Zhang makes an impression with her one big scene, commanding an interaction with Mr. Ye that turns out to be one of the film’s biggest single moments. Zhang’s performance is so good that it’s a shame we do not get more of her.
Hidden Blade is successful in terms of craftsmanship, performance, and style. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the production values. Cheng provides details in every corner of the frame, giving us something interesting to look at from beginning to end. In terms of story and historical accuracy, the narrative will require some work from the viewer to be fully informed. With all the double crosses and jumps in time, some may lose their bearings. But if you’re willing to go with it, there is plenty of wealth here to explore. At the very least, this acts as a starting point for those wishing to learn more about this point in time.