SYNOPSIS: During World War II, at the height of China’s war of resistance against Japan, a group of courageous citizens developed a top-secret underground espionage network right under the nose of the newly established puppet regime. At increasingly great peril to their lives, the double agents masterfully extract classified information deep behind enemy lines. This effort gives rise to the united front that will help turn the tide of the conflict.
Attention span and patience is a must for director, write and editor Cheng Er’s Hidden Blade, a film noir infused spy thriller starring the one and only Tony Leung and former K-pop star Wang Yibo (Born to Fly).
The story is set between 1938 to 1945 in Shanghai, an era where the Japanese army has pretty much taken control over China and planning to overtake the Manchurians. Mr. He (Tony) works for the current puppet government sniffing out communists and the underground resistance force. Joining him is young Ye (Wong) and his colleague, Wang (Eric Wang). Mr. He mostly reports to the Japanese army in charge, Watanabe (Hiroyuki Mori) while at the same time, a mysterious Ms Chen (Zhou Xun) and her partner, Zhang (Huang Lei) is secretly planning on their next attack on the Japanese.
Refusing to compromise to a straight-forward timeline, Cheng’s narrative can be a tad confusing for viewers as the drama tends to jump from one scene to another without making much sense or logic. Take for instance, Mr. He might be seen smoking and pondering in one shot for no reason and the movie switches to another shortly. After some brief moments, the same prior scene can be seen again and it then slowly expands to the viewers why or what the character is doing in that particular moment.
Comparing this to other spy thrillers liked Lust Caution and The Silent War which coincidentally also starred Tony Leung and the latter also with Zhou Xun, Hidden Blade lacks a certain urgency and nerve wrecking moments to justify its over two hours runtime. The numerous female characters also suffer from limited screentime including Ye’s supposedly betrothed wife (also a communist by the way) and Zhou Xun’s Ms Chen.
While the espionage aspect can be a bit weak, the production design of Hidden Blade is gorgeous. Like a fine Wong Kar-Wai arty drama, the colours and mood blended wonderfully onscreen. In addition, Mr. He and Ye can be seen frequently smoking, coolly staring into the horizon and mirrors. All the men talk in a leisurely manner punctuate occasionally by the sound of a gunshot although the violence we must say is brutal but not entirely gruesome.
Making sure he is worthy of his Golden Lion lifetime achievement award, Tony as expected is superb as the charismatic Mr. He and Wong Yibo unexpectedly tops things up as the equally unpredictable agent. Hidden Blade is a complex spy drama courtesy of Cheng Er’s overly ambitious story of history, espionage and propagandistic theories. It does have its flaws of course though it remains an interesting, satisfying tale to sit through if you have the attention and patience.
Review by Linus Tee