- Tony Leung puts in a memorable performance as He, a morally torn intelligence leader rooting out Communists for the Japanese during the second Sino-Japanese war
- The Shanghai-set film’s award-worthy production design contributes to an engaging spy story full of back-stabbing, back-alley rendezvous, twists and revelations
Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai at the height of the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-45), Cheng Er’s Hidden Blade is a stylish, noir-infused spy thriller starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Wang Yibo and Zhou Xun.
The film charts the efforts of the Imperial Japanese Army and Chinese collaborators to root out Communist resistance fighters and shore up Japan’s position of authority in the region.
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With a similar setting to the director’s 2016 film The Wasted Times, Hidden Blade is far more coherent, even with its non-linear structure that demands the audience’s unwavering attention.
Leung plays Director He, head of intelligence in Shanghai, and also the cousin of Minister Tang (Da Peng), the senior politician in the region. Both men report directly to General Watanabe (Hiroyuki Mori), and rule the city with an iron fist.
The film, whose narrative spans many years, includes various dramatic incidents, such as when He is tasked with interrogating Zhang (Huang Lei), a former member of the resistance who has surrendered.
Other memorable scenes include those in which intelligence officers Ye (Wang Yibo) and Wang (Wang Chuanjun) are sent to investigate the possible killing in action of a member of the Japanese royal family; and when Ye reconnects with his former fiancee, Ms Fang (Zhang Jingyi), who he discovers is now a sworn Communist.
The cosmopolitan foreign concessions in Shanghai, especially during this tumultuous period, have long made a seductive setting for stories, and Cheng’s visually decadent film is no exception.
From a procession of meticulously recreated restaurants to a terrifying torture chamber obscured within a labyrinth full of cacophonous caged dogs, the production design in Hidden Blade is especially deserving of praise, if not accolades.
Leung excels in his role as the conflicted He, a sympathetic anti-hero caught with one foot on either side of the front line. Wang Yibo grows into his role as the film unfolds.
Only Zhou Xun seems to be short-changed by Hidden Blade‘s disruptive editing, which leaves her character, Ms Chen, a disappointingly enigmatic presence.
The film’s title not only implies that one or more of the protagonists is a double agent with hidden loyalties, but also refers to the Communist movement as a whole, its members waiting quietly in the shadows for an opportune moment to retake their homeland.
The film is also full of duplicitous characters, back-alley rendezvous, betrayals and revelations, twists and turns.
Succeeding here where Cheng’s last attempt stumbled, Hidden Blade is both a nationalistic celebration and a loving ode to wartime spy stories of old.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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