After making his Western debut in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), Tony Leung Chiu-wai finds himself back on home soil, taking on an all too real enemy in WW2 spy thriller Hidden Blade. Leung Chiu-wai stars as Mr. He, the director of counter espionage for the Japanese who may be secretly working as a double agent for the Chinese Communist Party, passing on secrets in order to defeat the Japanese from within.
His associate is Mr. Ye (Wang Yibo), who like Mr. He keeps his emotions in check, with him appearing to be an extremely cold fish. This coldness keeps both Ye and He’s true motives initially murky, with the audience being kept in the dark of their true motives. With this air of mystery, the story slowly develops as it becomes clear of who can be trusted and how these underground heroes helped turn the tide of war.
Hidden Blade was produced by Polybona films, forming the third part of their “China Victory Trilogy”, with Chinese Doctor (2021) and The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021) being the first two entries. Unlike those films, the propaganda element isn’t as full on and is more subtly weaved into the tapestry of the film. Sure, there are characters who are Communists in the film, but unlike The Battle at Lake Changjin they aren’t protesting at length about the virtues of the Communist Party.
Anyone familiar with writer/director Cheng Er’s previous films like Lethal Hostage (2012) or The Wasted Times (2016) may have an idea of what to expect, but Hidden Blade is his most accomplished film to date, with terrific performances and a scale much larger than any of his previous work.
It must be said, Hidden Blade can be somewhat of a cold experience. This isn’t just to do with the film dealing with the atrocities of war but more to do with the approach Cheng Er takes in telling his story, with the film all being told in a nonlinear fashion. It could be argued that Cheng has made what would be an otherwise simple story appear more clever by chopping it up and rearranging the order of scenes, but Hidden Blade is ultimately an intelligently mounted thriller that still manages to surprise its audience with its twists and turns.
Making the decision to tell the story in a nonlinear fashion does have some disadvantages, keeping the audience slightly at a distance, with them having to work to put the separate pieces together. This additionally means that we are kept in the dark for long periods of time about the motives of the main characters, making it difficult at first to gauge any sympathy for them.
However, Hidden Blade is certainly a film that rewards patience, and while Cheng Er takes his time to introduce the disparate strands of its plot, he eventually manages to bring everything together to make a much satisfying whole, even injecting some much needed emotion into the second half of the film where we learn where characters’ loyalties truly lie.
Even before this, Cheng Er still manages to convey the human side of certain characters, that even though they may be traitors, they are ultimately still human. This is even true with the Japanese characters, who normally in a Chinese production would be merely shown as blood thirsty warlords. While this side of them is shown, Cheng Er includes several scenes of Japanese characters just talking amongst themselves, showing they also have fears and people they care for.
It does help that Cheng has a quality cast to rely on. It would be very easy to lose interest if Cheng had cast the film poorly. Due to secrecy surrounding each of the characters, you need actors that are able to command the audience’s attention, even when little is known about them.
I doubt it should come as a surprise to learn that Tony Leung Chiu-wai is terrific as the mysterious Mr. He, commanding the screen every time he appears. He has shown on countless occasions how well he can play morally complex characters like Mr. He, with his work here being heavily reminiscent of his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai or in Ang Lee’s Lust Caution (2007). He is able to convey so much with so little, creating a palpable sense of dread with just subtle body movement and line delivery alone.
More surprising was Wang Yibo as Ye, who like Mr. He has unclear motives. Nothing in Wang’s previous filmography would show the depth he brings here. Initially a cold calculating figure, showing his brutal side several times during the film, most memorably when he takes out his frustrations on a group of Japanese soldiers. Only later do we get to see his more human side when he meets Zhang Jingyi’s Ms. Fang, his fiance from years ago, now disgusted by his apparent traitorous actions.
As mentioned, the Japanese characters aren’t the typical cackling villains, Mori Hiroyuki is especially good as Watanabe who he doesn’t play as an out and out villain, with Watanabe not seeing his actions as evil but rather as a means to serve his country.
Adding to the drama are quality turns from the likes of Zhou Xun, Da Peng and Eric Wang who all do excellent work even if their screen time is less than our leads. Of the three Zhou Xun probably appears the least, but is one of the more important characters in the film, with her sharing a connection with several of the main characters.
Hidden Blade may be too slow moving for some, with it being more of a slow burn thriller than the typical actioners released from Well Go USA. Still, action lovers are rewarded with several excellent action set pieces taking place in the latter half of the film. Choreographed by action director Chen Chao, the best of these is a shootout involving Leung Chiu-wai and Yibo, with it quickly evolving into a hand to hand fight with the two of them using whatever comes at their disposable. It’s an excitingly tense scene with Cheng Er building up the tension by not making it obvious if either of them will survive.
Above everything else, it must be said that Hidden Blade is visually stunning, with the film’s increased budget allowing him to faithfully recreate the period in great detail. The cinematography is sumptuous, with the ever changing color palette conveying the requisite mood, with every shot and the placement of those within it all having a definite reason. On occasion, Cheng could be accused of pretentiousness, but it is hard to argue when viewing the end results.
Hidden Blade may not be for everyone, but lovers of intelligent thrillers will find it hard not to be impressed with the film Cheng Er has created. I had initially expected it to be more of an action film, but I can’t say that I was disappointed as it turned out to be much more than that. It may struggle more than your typical Chinese action movies to be released in the West, but I would urge people to still give it a chance as there is much to appreciate. This is clearly another winner from Well Go USA.
Plot: 4/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.8/5