Letterboxd (3.5/5), Imdb.com (7/10)
Espionage is widely regarded as a game of cat and mouse, and nowhere was that more apparent than in China during World War II, where a clandestine network of spies fought against their Japanese occupiers through meticulously executed acts of deception and false loyalty. At the same time, there were also competing, carefully concealed factions within their ranks quietly battling one another, relying on the same kinds of tactics used against their mutual enemies, for who would control the country during the post-war era, pitting Chinese nationalists against the rising tide of Communism. That tangled web of moves and counter-moves is effectively brought to life in writer-director Er Cheng’s fourth feature outing, a film that seamlessly combines works drawn from the historical drama, action-adventure, thriller and arthouse genres, quite an accomplishment for such widely diverse materials. The picture’s fine period piece production values, excellent ensemble cast (especially protagonists Tony Leung and Yibo Wang), atmospheric cinematography and superb special effects blend well to tell an engaging, visually tantalizing tale that gets better and better the further one gets into the story. Admittedly, the filmmaker’s less-than-veiled political symbolism, which obviously is meant to bolster Chinese propagandist sentiments, can be seen as somewhat over the top at times. Moreover, the director’s assumptions regarding audience foreknowledge of mid-20th Century Chinese history can occasionally leave viewers somewhat baffled and frustrated (though one should bear in mind that this was made for a Chinese audience). What’s more, the picture’s out-of-sequence storytelling can be a little frustrating (especially in the first hour), though, thanks to the film’s inspired editing, the narrative cleverly circles back to its origins as the movie goes on, making up for what some may see as a shortcoming. However, these considerations aside, “Hidden Blade” is a surprising little gem, one that, hopefully, won’t get lost in a sea of lesser releases or pictures that capture undeserved praise.