The shadowy puzzle-box pleasures of Chinese spy thriller Hidden Blade

the-shadowy-puzzle-box-pleasures-of-chinese-spy-thriller hidden-blade
Wang Yibo and Eric Wang in Cheng Er’s moody, shadowy spy thriller Hidden Blade, now in cinemas. | Well Go USA

Satisfyingly cerebral, Hidden Blade features a masterful Tony Leung and a breakout performance from Wang Yibo.

Toward the end of Hidden Blade (无名), the arty Chinese World War II spy thriller that has now reached US cinemas, everything comes to a halt.

“Matte kudasai,” Wang Yibo, playing the canny, careful Secretary Ye, says in silky Japanese. Wait, please.

And then we all — the character he’s talking to, the camera, the film score, the audience, the movie — slow down and wait. We wait for him to light a cigarette, take a drag, then another. We wait for him to look at his reflection. We watch him, wreathed in smoke, take his time.

With a lesser actor, this would feel excessive, showy; it would flatten the moment. But this is Wang Yibo, star of The Untamed and Street Dance of China, former K-pop idol, sometime motorcycle racer, multitalented polymath, and multinational heartthrob. In the pause, tension and dark purpose coil in his jawline, his shoulders, in every flick of his wrist. I have never wanted to look at anything more in my life.

Hidden Blade has gone largely unnoticed in mainstream US media, usually getting name-checked as the legendary Tony Leung’s latest film. The New York Times gave it a kind but mixed capsule review. Other outlets that bothered to review it did so poorly, with multiple reviewers unable to tell cast members apart from one another (!), a handful misunderstanding and misstating the plot, one reviewer dismissing the entire cast apart from Leung. Several wrote it off as a propaganda film.

But Hidden Blade, from writer-director Cheng Er, deserves a much better critical assessment than this. It serves propaganda only in the way that the average war movie might glorify the homeland — think Top Gun: Maverick. In this case, that means a homeland battered by a brutal Japanese occupation. Our timeline centers around Republic-era China, several years after the Nanjing Massacre. The country’s combative factions — the Japanese occupants, the Kuomintang leadership, the current puppet government, and the underground communist resistance — all vie to control China’s future as the war wages around them. Our main characters, Director He (Leung) and his subordinate Secretary Ye (Wang), both work for the Japanese regime in Shanghai, rooting out members of each of the opposing factions and doing the governor’s bidding. But spies are everywhere, and their allegiances aren’t always obvious — sometimes not even to themselves.

Hidden Blade’s production house, Bona Film Group, loosely placed this film into a “trilogy” called the China Victory Trilogy. (The prior film, The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021), was a mega-blockbuster; this film had a far more lowkey release, though it’s been such a success — closing on $1 billion RMB, it’s reportedly the top-grossing art film in Chinese history — that there’s talk of a sequel.) Each film, linked thematically but not materially, highlights a different group of ordinary people battling a war. This outing explores the pressures placed on WWII spies who often had to work in complete isolation for months and even years; the film’s Chinese title translates to Anonymous. Cheng takes the smoke-and-mirrors obfuscation of the spy genre literally: Ye spends much of the time he’s onscreen symbolically mirroring He, while studying himself in mirrors, being looked at through mirrors, and functioning as a looking-glass for the film itself.

This could all easily feel like shallow gloss with little substance, and the plot seems relatively thin; but over the course of the film, that plot reveals itself to be a tightly edited jigsaw awaiting your assembly.

This is a big part of why repeated viewings of Hidden Blade are such a pleasure (I saw it six times in four days). The film is a metaphorical escape room you find your way through, muddling at first, then quicker and quicker until you arrive at an open door. Cheng’s aesthetic style flickers through the muted action of the first half, from Godard-like formalism to von Trier-esque visual war poetry to outright Tarkovsky homages. But steadily the stylistic flourishes give way to a riveting, sparse thriller with phenomenal fight scenes, staged with excellent attention to setting and detail by fight choreographer Chao Chen. Cai Tao’s cinematography has lingered with me for days, with some shots cracking the whole film wide open for me on third or fourth watch.

This film basks in tiny thematic details — the timing of a musical cue, the symbolism of a tableau, the way a character’s face is lit between light and shadow. Then there’s the symbology; my friends have been discussing the thematic element of food in this movie for days: The symbolism of an intimidating bowl of drunken shrimp, the political nuances of debates over French cuisine, the secrets of an unassuming box of pastry.

In other words, Hidden Blade’s cerebral challenges invite you to play the games its characters are playing. It opens itself to the audience more and more with every repeat viewing. The supporting cast makes the most of limited emotional real estate; Eric Wang and Zhou Xun sink their teeth into their very different roles in the spy game. Tony Leung’s performance in particular grows craftier and more intelligent on every viewing as you begin to understand the veneer of polite soullessness around which he layers his real, veiled emotions. The moments he lets them peek through are masterful to behold.

But as much as Tony Leung was made for subtle but heady roles like this, Hidden Blade belongs to Wang Yibo, and so does this review.

Bona Film Group
A production still of Hidden Blade featuring Wang Yibo, released for the film’s ¥500m box office. The film has since grossed nearly ¥1 billion.

This is Yibo, after all, a 25-year-old wunderkind who spent his childhood training in Korea to become a K-pop idol but who returned to China and became a Chinese entertainer slash dance star slash actor instead. I first wrote about Yibo here in 2020 in my review of the historical fantasy series The Untamed. I described him then as “conveying Grand Canyons of emotional depth” through “mesmerizing infinitesimal facial adjustments.”

Since then, I have watched Yibo disappear into one strikingly different character after another, embodying them all with talent and skill beyond his years; I have watched him deliver performance after performance, transforming himself onstage and off. He has a star quality that’s hard to describe until you truly get acquainted with his performances and his persona. On first impression, he’s rarely the hottest or the strongest or the glitziest entertainer in a room — but he’s the one who unfailingly blows you away in the end, the one you can’t stop talking about.

As Secretary Ye, Yibo packs the same intensity: He smolders and throbs and pulses his way through Hidden Blade, talking only rarely but speaking volumes with the soulful eyes that first captivated me and a jillion other fans three years ago.

Since The Untamed, Yibo has become a massive star in his home country. He was originally scheduled to make his film debut in the much more high-profile Born to Fly (now scheduled for a spring release), in which he stars as the equivalent to Tom Cruise in Top Gun. As much pressure as a role like that must be to play, the weight Yibo carries in Hidden Blade feels almost heavier. Cheng has talked at length about how the more he saw Yibo act, the bigger his part became; he rewrote the film around Yibo as production progressed, eventually transforming Ye from a smaller part into the soul of the movie.

That’s a huge responsibility, but Yibo shoulders it effortlessly. He immerses himself in Ye’s tortured psyche; he trembles and seethes and changes the mood of an entire scene with a single sharp glance. A debut like this, from an actor this young, in a part this intense, carrying the entire film beside one of China’s greatest living actors, all while juggling four different languages (Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese and Shanghainese dialects) feels remarkable. Yibo’s performance seals Hidden Blade’s status as an unexpected pleasure. Once finally assembled, its cinematic intricacies yield infinite rewards.

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