Hidden Blade (2023) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Too convoluted to care

I often felt frustrated and exhausted as watching Chinese spy noir thriller film “Hidden Blade”, which was released in South Korea yesterday. Although I enjoyed its period mood and details to some degree, I did not get much fun or entertainment while my mind constantly and busily struggled to make sense of its heavily convoluted narrative filled with various kinds of deception and manipulation, and I eventually became rather distant and bored as dully observing the movie trudging from one elusive conversation scene from another without much sense of focus or direction.

This is rather odd because the movie has Tony Leung, a great Hong Kong actor who can suggest many different things at once via his distinctive mix of natural charisma and subtle acting. Again, he instantly draws our attention right from his very first scene in the film, but he is usually one of mere plot elements here just like all of the other main cast members in the movie, and it is a shame that the movie seldom lets him function as the human center to hold for us amid lots of confusion and disorientation in the story.

Leung’s character, Director Ha, is the head of the Political Security Department in Shanghai for the puppet regime under the control of the Japanese Army in the middle of the World War II. Along with his right-hand guy Mr. Ye (Wang Yibo), Director Ha has successfully arrested a bunch of enemy agents, and that is why they are the members of a political inner circle led by Officer Watanabe (Hiroyuki Mori), who is charged with overseeing their department on behalf of the Japanese Army.

It looks like things will eventually work out well for the Japanese Army as well as Director Ha and other Chinese collaborators in Shanghai, but the situation becomes much more alarming after the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1941, and then there come two unexpected incidents. On one hand, a group of Japanese soldiers are ambushed and then killed at one night for a certain atrocious deed of theirs, and Director Ha and his subordinates must find and then eliminate whoever is behind this incident. On the other hand, a certain prominent enemy agent approaches for defection, and this agent reveals that there is a hidden spy around the top of the Political Security Department in Shanghai. Naturally, both Director Ha and Mr. Ye become all the more discreet than before, and we accordingly get a series of dry but tense conversation scenes where they and several other main characters are flatly talking about one thing but also seem to imply some other thing to each other while overseen by Officer Watanabe, who has nothing much to hide in contrast as often wearing his jaded imperialist heart on his sleeve.

The screenplay by director/writer Cheng Er brings more confusion via its non-chronological plot structure. As the story frequently flashes forward or backward throughout the film, the movie gets bogged down more by its increasingly convoluted storytelling, and we become more distant and disinterested as a result. The movie actually presents several certain key moments more than once, and we are supposed to regard them differently with more information revealed along the story, but they are no more than repetitive bookmarks for us because the movie merely replays them without much difference.

In technical aspects, the movie certainly spends its production budget well. Its period atmosphere and details are as fine as many other similar films ranging from Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” (2007) to Zhang Yimou’s “Cliff Walkers” (2021), and its only distracting element is the score which often feels quite heavy-handed while being influenced too much by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score for “Dark Knight” (2008). Whenever any main character seems to look suspicious at any chance, the score becomes overpoweringly intense and brooding, and that goes on and on to our annoyance.

And Leung comes and goes with grace and authority as we can expect from him. While he rarely seems to be signifying anything, Leung ably conveys to us whatever is lurking beneath his phlegmatic poker face in the film, and he is particularly good when his character has a little private interview with the aforementioned defector. As supposedly looking casual and courteous on the surface, his character corners his interviewee bit by bit to our discomfort and amusement, and you can see that Leung can easily play Christoph Waltz’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) if its Chinese remake version is ever planned.

In case of several other main cast members in the film, they dutifully fill their spots in the story. While Wang Yibo, Da Peng, and Erik Wang are solid in their respective parts, Zhou Xun, Jiang Shuying, and Zhang Jingyi are mostly stuck with their flat supporting roles, and Hiroyuki Mori has some fun with his haughty Japanese officer character.

In conclusion, “Hidden Blade” is a ponderous genre exercise whose flaws cannot be wholly compensated by its good elements including Leung’s invaluable presence. Because I feel like not processing and understanding everything in the film, I may have to give it another chance someday, but I also remember well how frustrated and distant I was to its story and characters without much emotional involvement, and I must confess that it is already being faded in my mind. Yes, it is surely better than “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” in comparison, but I would rather recommend “Lust, Caution” or “Cliff Walkers” instead, and I assure you that you will have a more productive time with either of them.

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