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February 14, 2023

Hidden Blade


Cheng Er - 2022
WellGo USA

I had some initial concerns about Hidden Blade with its description as being the concluding film fo the "China Victory Trilogy". For those who have been following Chinese cinema recently, there has been an emphasis on making films usually based on historical events that do not disguise their sense of nationalism. While I am not aware of any government ordered revisions, Cheng Er appears to have subverted expectations. What is certain is that this is a visually stunning film even if the narrative pieces may not entirely come together.

Most of the story takes place between 1938 and 1946, primarily in Shanghai. The first few scenes flow back and forth between time periods. It takes a while to understand the rhythm and the connections, as well as having the characters established. Much of this is deliberate as it is revealed that several characters may not be who we might think they are. It is a story about Chinese secret service agents who are working in cooperation with the Japanese colonial government to ferret out Communist agents. There may be a double-agent among them. What may get in the way of following the narrative aspects is that involves details of Chinese history during World War II that may be unfamiliar to some viewers. This admittedly includes myself as being unaware of the Chinese nationalist and anti-Communist leader, Wang Ching-wei, the main rival of Chiang Kai-shek.

Where the film works best is as a neo-Noir of men walking in dark hallways seeking other men ready to divulge secrets from the opposing side. There is a scene with Tony Leung Chiu-wai interviewing a man carrying information. Leung is simultaneously cordial, yet there is a hint of threat behind everything he says. Cheng, who wrote and edited his film keeps so much elliptical that so many scenes are revealed to provide partial information. Even when it is reasonably certain who the villains are, there are no clear heroes. Tony Leung's character of Mr. He remains ambiguous until the last half hour.

It is a shock to see a visibly aged Leung is his first close-up. Even at age 60, he still is willing and able to do extended action scenes. Here he is fighting enemy agents with guns and fists, in and out of dark rooms and staircases. No martial arts moves here. While there is no equivalent femme fatale as is found in classic noir, Xhu Xhun appears as a mysterious woman dressed in black. Even Hiroyuki Mori as the Japanese liaison for the secret service agents is presented more as misguided in his beliefs rather than villainous. Some patience is required for watching Hidden Blade. Unlike too many current films, there is hardly any time for exposition putting the dots together for viewers unwilling to pay attention as even what may first appear as throwaway moments have their meaning. This means sticking through the very end with a very literal final shot.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 14, 2023 06:52 AM