“In the Mood for Love” star Tony Leung Chiu-wai, smiling mischievously throughout, plays Mr. He, one of many ill-fated spies who actually serves the Chinese Communists while also seeming to collaborate with the Japanese—mostly represented by the haughty Nipponese official Watanabe (Hiroyuki Mori)—and President Wang’s puppet government in Manchuria. Mr. He has allied with the relatively impressionable Mr. Ye (Wang Yibo), who chases after and retraces He’s steps in order to secure more information for too many masters. Both He and Ye try to satisfy the increasingly testy Watanabe, but he’s too much of a stock villain to be a major threat. Watanabe’s commands are still unfair, and the consequences of his actions are brutal and, yawn, destabilizing.
Meanwhile, Tony Leung indicates, with his attentive eyes and endless cigarettes, an earthier and largely unexplored way into this sadsack arthouse drama. Both the plot’s narrow scope and free-associative structure are telling, since the story begins in 1938—when Japanese pilots and Chinese collaborators bombed the Chinese city of Guangzhou—and ends around 1946, months after the war’s end. In this way, viewers must focus on the characters’ wearying struggle against the cruel Japanese—whose attack on Guangzhou leaves one main character to mourn their innocent brother, who dies alongside his cute Shiba Inu, named Roosevelt. But the movie’s big, state-approved climax is very much what it is: an execution that’s represented as a fist-pumping triumph, complete with one major character revealing to the other the real secret of his success—he’s a Communist, too.
So maybe it’s not that surprising to see Leung’s star power wasted in such a dour genre exercise, whose high-toned cinematography, handsome period costumes, and nostalgia-inducing production design also only underscore how shallow and unlovable everything else tends to be. “Hidden Blade” indicates dramatic tension through scenes that are elliptical and needlessly clipped.
The filmmakers never stop telling you what their movie is about without ever making you want to invest in He, Ye, or Watanabe, or any of the secondary characters caught in their crisscrossing orbits, like He’s love interest, Mrs. Chen (Zhou Xun), who’s inevitably threatened with sexual violence. Almost every action and line of pseudo-abstract dialogue blithely hints at heavy events; “Hidden Blade” rarely slows down long enough to consider potential emotional fallout.
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