Director: Cheng Er
Cast: Tony Leung, Wang Yibo, Chengpeng Dong, Zhou Xun, Eric Wang, Huang Lei, Hiroyuki Mori
Duration: 130 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
Spy thrillers set in the 1930s and 1940s have become something of a genre of their own in the Chinese film industry over the last decade or so, with titles like Alan Mak and Felix Chong among them. The silent warby Ann Hui Our time will comeand Chen Kaige Cliff walkers all indulging in spy tales and subterfuge. The latest production that goes back to the period of China occupied by Japan is that of director Cheng Er Hidden bladewho himself is no stranger to the setting, having also used it as a backdrop for the last time he sat in the director’s chair with 2016 Wasted times.
Provide an always welcome return to the big screen for Tony Leung (Hard boiled, Predators of Europe), here he plays the head of the political security department, supervised by an ambitious Japanese officer played by Hiroyuki Mori (Railroad heroes). Leung’s day-to-day role sees him tasked with rooting out the underground network of Communists seeking to overthrow the Japanese, and while it would initially appear Hidden blade offers a confrontational villain role similar to the one he played in 2007 Lust, Attentionactually the film landscape in China has changed considerably over the next 16 years. So far from having a main character as one who willingly works for the Japanese, somehow it turns out that he also secretly works for the Communists.
Former K-pop boyband member Wang Yibo (Born to fly, A Chinese Odyssey: Part 3) is also on board as one of Leung’s colleagues in the same department, however it turns out that he may also be a secret communist. Do the two know that each of them secretly supports the same cause, the Japanese officer feels that there may be traitors in the ranks, will all this lead to a tragic misunderstanding? These are all questions that lend themselves to a gripping plot, yet Er treats the material so heavily that the entire experience becomes a tour de force in grim cinematic virtually devoid of any narrative energy or drive.
From a production standpoint, there is no question that it is a wonderful film to watch, with period details and lighting all evoking a mood of the era, even if this comes at the cost of scenes that are often open with characters positioned as if it were a magazine shoot rather than a spy thriller. However, it takes more than good production design to make a good film, and outside of visual aesthetics, the 130-minute runtime quickly becomes a punishing chore to overcome in one sitting. Characters talk in pompous conversations, filled with extended pauses and even more extended shots of smoking cigarettes, robbing the scenes of any potential to heighten tension or raise the stakes. As an audience we get hushed tones and measured conversations that uphold the seriousness of the circumstances, so if nobody is fussing, a good director has to find other avenues to create a sense of what’s at stake.
Er fails to do this most spectacularly mainly due to his choice to have events unfold non-chronologically. Any kind of non-linear storytelling has to serve a specific purpose, whether it’s the revelation of a new perspective or a crucial plot point we weren’t aware of previously, casting events in a new light. However, the handling of its jumbled timeline that takes place from 1938 to 1946 feels haphazard at best, with the constant jumping back and forth offering no real impact or revelations than if they had played out in order, feeling more like a director painfully overdid it with his hand. At worst, building to a particular plot point allows for a gratuitously CCP-indulging punchline to be delivered before the credits roll, which is sure to induce audible groans in many watching, myself included.
With the timeline shifting effectively robbing the bloated running time of any sort of narrative-driven forward thrust, I realized Hidden blade it was becoming the very first film to test a line I once uttered a long time ago that went something like, “I could look Tony Leung in anything.” Indeed, as an actor, Leung has lost none of his sense of gravitas or ability to convey a feeling with a single glance, and if anything, it’s only his delivery that will keep viewers watching, even if we seem to know little else. of his character at the end than we did at the beginning. In some ways it is indicative of another big problem with Hidden bladein that the plot is too concerned with the aftermath of events surrounding the characters rather than the characters themselves, resulting in the audience having no one to relate to, or at least root for.
The production is the first major role for Wang Yibo, one of two lead turns she had done in 2023 (the other was Born to fly), having so far only played supporting roles. There’s no denying that she looks the part, although when she plays alongside Leung it’s clear that she just doesn’t have the screen presence to pull off a film on her own yet. Maybe Er thought so too, since even though he’s ranked with Leung, his character doesn’t actually make any kind of significant appearance until about an hour later. That said, he’s given the most human moments, being embroiled in a revenge plot that finally gives the audience a character motivation to connect with beyond rooting for communists.
The introduction of Yibo’s motivations also set the stage for a jarring final 40 minutes that risk feeling like an entirely different film. The measured pacing gives way to sudden passionate kisses between two characters who may be their last, the unintended kinetic nature of such a scene juxtaposed against the stillness of the “people in rooms chatting” that dominated the running time making it almost comical. There’s also an epic showdown between Leung and Yibo that sees the two attacking each other and dishing out a ridiculous amount of punishment, including suplexes, that doesn’t seem to quite match anything that’s come before. Hidden blade it has an action choreographer in the form of Chen Chao, who worked on both IP Man 3 AND IP Man 4so maybe he just wanted to make sure he could earn his paycheck and decided to go all out for their one-on-one.
Outside of the leads, the supporting cast all do a stellar job, with the production featuring a reunion for Leung and Zhou Xun (Painted leather, True legend) who starred together in the aforementioned The silent war in 2012. Xun has remained one of the hottest actresses working in China since the 2000s, and while her role here is relatively minor, she still has a significant impact on the overall storyline. Da Peng (Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, The thousand faces of Dunjia), perhaps best known for 2015 Jian Bing’s man in which he acted, directed, wrote and produced, he also features as one of the ministers, further proving his ability to play it straight as well as comedic roles.
Despite the strong cast and rich production values, Hidden blade seems like a missed opportunity. The measured pace and deadpan delivery are somewhat a trademark of Chinese thrillers set in this era, yet productions such as Lust, Attention have shown that it is no barrier to creating tension and, more importantly, keeping it simmering. The biggest challenge Er faces Hidden blade it’s that he seems to have forgotten to turn on the gas, so scenes play out one after another, but it never feels like anything is building to anything meaningful or that there’s anything worth investing in for the audience. the character says, “I failed in the end because I let emotions get in my way.” Irony of fate, Hidden blade it fails precisely because it’s such an emotionless affair, leaving only a feeling of emptiness by the time the credits roll.
Paul Bramhall’s assessment: 5/10