Hidden Blade Stumbles in the Shadows
Er Cheng’s latest film is dripping in atmosphere and leans into its period setting but offers very little emotion.
Hidden Blade Review
Through the initial moments of Er Cheng’s Hidden Blade, the audience is introduced to characters whose allegiances are kept in the shadows. The scenes are spread out over time and indicate a sprawling political thriller that, over time, will illuminate how these characters got to these specific forks in the road and why it matters that they’re being shown out of order as opposed to the rest of the film’s chronological presentation. Hidden Blade does piece everything back together in an unclear but hostile atmosphere where one wrong move could mean failure. However, each resolution often undermines the strengths of its character work with obvious and underwhelming reveals that take characters out of the shadows for an impact that never lands.
Hidden Blade is cut from the same cloth as other period espionage thrillers, cradling itself within a historical period while also trying to maintain the mystery around as many characters as it can. Though the screenplay, also written by Cheng, does have its fair share of suspense as characters interact with one another and their motivations are interrogated, it’s also not as subtle as it suggests. Mr. He (Tony Leung), for example, is pretty evident in his characterization and serves as one of the two anchors for the film. Tensions surface against the erratic Mr. Ye (Yibo Wang) and his unclear motivations as the two characters spend most of their time apart, unknowingly implicated in one another’s journey.
Hidden Blade depends on its setting of WWII China to an extreme degree. The narrative centers itself around a Chinese resistance that has formed, specifically around a network of nationalist spies that attempts to navigate the Japanese presence within China. It brings with it a lavish production design and costumes befitting the era while also letting the film revel in the noir aesthetic where every frame looks gorgeous thanks to impeccable lighting and exquisite uses of shadows to mirror the plot’s own intrigue. It’s a beautiful-looking movie that isn’t revelatory in its design but helps add that extra level of immersion to the atmosphere it so desperately finds refuge within.
There is an apparent reliance on history, though, while trying to remain slightly objective within a movie that is the third part of the “China Victory Trilogy,” preceded by Chinese Doctors and The Battle at Lake Changjin. There’s a propaganda element that is not as painfully obvious here, but also when it is made clear, it’s not grating in any way. Instead, there’s an almost equal dive into perspective thanks to the heavy inclusion of Japanese officer Watanabe (Hiroyuki Mori) and frequent conversations surrounding purpose, nationalism, and motivation. To that effect, Cheng’s screenplay is somewhat refreshing within a trilogy of films that so obviously caters to a single side argument.
Where Hidden Blade finds itself stumbling is in its plotting. There’s some momentum that kicks in later in the film, but even that is stifled by the absurd decision to cherry-pick moments to present initially and then come back to them as if they would play out any differently. It’s a very obvious film that treats its audience like it’s never seen a spy film prior. More confusing is why it needs to do that at all, other than understanding that there’s not a lot to latch onto leading up to those moments of narrative closure.
The other major issue is Yibo Wang’s performance which never meshes with the rest of the cast. It’s serviceable, and Wang gets time to shine in some action moments where he does his best work within the film, but every dramatic moment is often undercut by a performance that seems uncertain of where he’s supposed to be emotionally. It’s a tricky balancing act, and playing against veteran actor Tony Leung does not do him any favors, but compared to the steely resolve of Leung’s performance and all the other actors fitting within the noir aesthetic, Wang only really shines in the thriller elements of Hidden Blade.
There are also just a lot of characters who feel like they should be important when they aren’t given enough to be vital. No female character in this isn’t just someone to someone. They’re plot points but rarely developed characters. Even when the characters are given emotional value to the protagonists, it’s barely explored enough to have any impact. Baffling decisions ultimately mire the film, but this is one of the ones where it just doesn’t make any sense why Cheng bothers to include characters if there’s not going to be any significant effect in including them. It’s a story about two people trying to navigate a treacherous world given the hand they’re dealt, but almost every attempt to nuance it outside of its setting is unfortunately haphazardly done.
The direction overall, though, is generally solid, even if the resulting film is more stylish than it is memorable in its narrative. The few action beats here are effective, including the climax that, even if the story were too confusing, you’d still find yourself exhilarated by the thrill of the physicality and technical camerawork. Cheng marries the thriller and espionage elements remarkably well. The misstep here is the music which feels almost as out of place as Wang, as the score tonally just works against every drip of atmosphere that Cheng is so hyperfocused on. It’s generic and frequently distracting – unintentionally cheapening an otherwise lavish production steeped in suspense.
There’s a lot to admire in Hidden Blade, but it’s an infuriatingly simple film that overcomplicates every aspect except the ones that matter. The screenplay contorts itself with the desperation to be clever in its coyness but doesn’t have any reveals that justify the outcome. While most of the actors deliver sturdy, confident work, Wang never seems to have a solid grip on the political espionage side of the material, and it ends up being one of many elements that drags Hidden Blade down. An otherwise atmospheric and moody period piece, Hidden Blade always seems to undercut its strengths and delivers a middling spy film that never quite scratches below the surface.