Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Hidden Blade

You know, I don't think we're actually going to get A Guilty Conscience playing Boston Common, given that the date on that standee is a month ago. I suppose it could wind up here now because it's apparently the number one movie in Mainland China after opening there a few weeks behind its Lunar New Year opening in Hong Kong, since the Boston Common bookings tend to favor Mainland or Mandarin-language hits.

Supporting that: This played at generally weird times last week - I don't think it got a showtime between 6pm and 8pm for the whole week, but every time I tried to schedule a time that worked for me, it was sold out. Even at 10:45pm times, which would let out at about 1:15am given AMC's tendency for 20 minutes of trailers, sold out. That's not as crazy as you might think, in that if you figure most of the audience was being drawn from nearby Chinatown, they could walk home rather than dink around with the MBTA like me. I actually had a 9:30pm ticket on Wednesday reserved until I saw it got a second week. For that week, it had a full slate of times, but it was not especially packed for my Sunday evening show, although it was a respectable audience, and I wasn't the only non-Chinese person there. It's being held over for a third weekend, but pretty limited showtimes again.

It's an interesting cycle, actually; I wonder if the fact that Well Go actually seems to be promoting this beyond Chinatown audiences plays into it, or to what extent AMC had data that said the previous week's weird schedule (which often seemed like trying to split a screen with three-hour-holdover The Wandering Earth 2) would work so well.

Ah, well. Given that this is a Well Go release, I'm kind of surprised there wasn't a Sakra trailer, although I suppose they might want to wait for the release date to be firmed up and push it with John Wick 4.

Also: Kind of odd that the full-screen credit for Tony Leung has a little "(Hong Kong, China)" at the end. I've seen these nationality tags on people's names before, not just for Chinese/Hong Kong movies, and I wonder what the purpose of it here is (unless it's some sort of disambiguation with a Leung Chiu-Wai from the Mainland).

Wu ming (Hidden Blade)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2023 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Hidden Blade is one of those spy movies that makes me wonder if Shanghai really looked this cool in the middle of a war, although China is a big place and the majority of the fighting may have been far away. Still, one accepts the genre for what it is, and in this case that's smartly dressed, capable professionals looking like they've got it all under control on the outside while the situation deteriorates for some and the strain of maintaining a facade crumples the double agents from within.

The story jumps around in time from 1938 to 1945, following Shanghai-based officers in the Political Security Department, an agency of the puppet government dominated by the Japanese, with Minister Tang (Da Peng) and Officer Watanabe (Hiroyuki Mori) running things. Much of the action foucses on two cases: In one, high-ranking officer Mr. He (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) debriefs Mr. Zhang (Huang Lei), part of the communications pipeline to the Communist leadership for the area along with cohabitant Miss Chen (Zhou Xun); in another Mr. Ye (Wang Yibo) and Mr. Wang (Eric Wang Chaunjun) investigate the ambush of a Japanese unit containing a minor member of the royal family. It's clear that there is a Communist infiltrator in the PSD, but who?

It's not exactly difficult to guess, given the billing and where the film starts before the flashbacks begin, but writer/director/editor Cheng Er plays things much closer to the vest than one might expect for a part of a larger wave of "China Victory" films. That's a function of how he writes and directs, but perhaps his most fascinating work is as editor, in that he has the movie jump back and forth through time not just to hide things from the audience, though it does so artfully, but to create a sense of fatigue and confusion. War and spying is stressful and leaves one unmoored, a blur as one looks back, with basic facts seeming to elude as one lives in two separate realities. The audience is as unsure what to trust and what's hiding secrets as the characters. It doesn't always work - the story and discovery of the family in the well feels like it should have layers rather than coming across as a coincidence - but it's a neat trick to hold back without feeling like that's the entire point.

There's a fine bit of work portraying all that without necessarily giving the game away as to which is which. A big part of that is the cast finding ways to make either being two-faced or just cracking as collaborators work. Tony Leung, for instance, smiles and pokes as Mr. He, trying to remain above things but maybe not having it in him; Wang Yibo looks about to snap, especially in the aftermath of a scene when his character's wife (a fierce Zhang Jingyi) makes it clear she despises him and what he stands for. Even the least ambiguous characters are strained; Horiyuki Mori playing the Japanese commander annoyed by the politicking he must do is entertainingly, humanly callous.

There are also a couple of absolutely fantastic action scenes, even if that's not the film's main focus. Wang Yibo gets a heck of a showcase in the center, for instance, and the finale is an especially great fight that looks like every little bit of it hurts, and which manages to keep going on even though the gunplay feels like it could be cut short at any moment. It's so terrific that I was a bit disappointed that the film kept going for another ten or fifteen minutes after such a coup de grace: There's one nifty bit in that but some adrenaline does drain.

Still, I can see why the local crowd was selling it out even at crappy times last week. Even if the outcome of a Chinese spy movie may be foreordained, this one takes a pretty slick route getting there. I didn't particularly love Cheng's previous film, The Wasted Times, but here his tendency to fold a genre story back over itself until it takes on a new shape does more to help the story he's telling than to obscure it, and the result is engrossing.

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