I don’t think I have ever had such mixed feelings about how to rate a movie. If I were grading it on a rubric, it would have either a perfect score or a zero in every category. Hidden Blade is a very mixed bag.
A little historical background is needed to understand this movie. Hidden Blade is set in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Shanghai under occupation by a declining Empire of Japan and kept in check by a puppet government led by Wang Jingwei. Shanghai is rife with tension between the occupying Japanese forces, the puppet government’s terrifying secret police, an underground resistance movement, and the civilians caught in the crossfire. One real historical figure referenced in the film is Ding Mocun, the brutal head of the secret police who was notorious for using torture as his preferred method of keeping the populace in line.
First, the good. Hidden Blade looks gorgeous and has an oustanding cast. Tony Leung Chiue Wai and Wang Yibo are the leads and carry their scenes effortlessly. Tony plays a charming but ruthless head of the secret police (sound familiar?) while Wang Yibo plays a low-level goon and interrogator who ingratiates himself with the Japanese officer overseeing the occupation. Both are charming and their performances reveal the characters’ inner turmoil. But the best performances might actually be a pair of minor female characters – one a Communist resistance fighter who lures Japanese soldiers to their deaths and the other a Nationalist spy who is caught and interrogated by Tony.
Hidden Blade is also gorgeous. It embraces a washed-out neo noir look, and there are plenty of moody shots in dimly-lit rooms or rainy streets. Most of the film feels bleak and claustrophobic. Occasionally, the story switches over to a war drama in the vein of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and those scenes, while horrifying in content, are beautifully-executed. The score seems to crib from the Denis Villenueve/Hans Zimmer playbook (Dune/Blade Runner 2049) of throwing a beautiful image on screen, waiting half a beat, then blasting the audience with a huge full-orchestra chord. It’s not the most original take on movie-making, but it is very well-executed.
If I loved the acting and visuals, surely Hidden Blade must get high marks, right? Well, this is where things fall apart: The writing and editing are a disorienting mess. As a piece of storytelling, Hidden Blade fails to be entertaining, emotionally moving, or to make any kind of sense. I throw editing in there because I can’t help but shake the feeling that with some judicious cuts and a little reorganization, there might be a great movie hidden somewhere in this mess. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a better version out there. But as-released, there is no way to tell what any character is trying to accomplish or what they care about. And because the characters seem to change their personalities between scenes and have no consistent motivations, there is no drama or tension. So many great scenes roll by, but they are disconnected vignettes that fail to coalesce into a story.
To illustrate the problem, I have to use some big spoilers. Consider this your warning.
Hidden Blade is obviously propaganda-laden, but I actually don’t hold that against it. Clearly their intent was to write some historical fiction where the heroes were brave Communists fighting off the evil occupiers and treacherous collaborators. That’s fine. It might be ahistorical, but a movie like that could still be good art and entertaining. But Hidden Blade isn’t even good propaganda. Let me explain…
So suppose Hidden Blade was intended to paint Communists in a good light. That should be easy to pull off. Have some brave Communist resistance fighters battle the evil occupiers. Make them go undercover, build some tension, put them in a few morally difficult situations, and ultimately have our heroes take down the occupation from the inside. We even have Ding Mocun as the real-life inspiration for a truly horrifying villain. Easy peasy.
But that’s not what Hidden Blade does. Wang Yibo is a low-level enforcer for the secret police, but also a secret Communist freedom fighter. He does horrible things for the occupation – capturing, torturing, and killing resistance fighters and innocent people. Sure, he gets in one brawl with some Japanese soldiers, but that’s more about a personal grievance than any desire to end the occupation. Does our secret freedom fighter ever really do anything to take down the occupiers to justify all his evil deeds? Nope. (More on this later.)
Part of the problem is that the secret police, which Wang Yibo’s character has infiltrated, was run by Tony Leung’s character, ANOTHER secret Communist freedom-fighter. He interrogates prisoners. He signs death warrants. He sends Wang Yibo off to torture and kill people. It’s basically Ding Mocun, but sexier because he’s played by Tony Leung. His most significant acts of rebellion are silencing a defector and letting a Nationalist spy go free. But for the most part, he does an excellent job of terrorizing the local populace. He does more to help the Japanese occupation than he does to hinder it. Not exactly heroic behavior.
Our heroes aren’t revealed as secret Communist freedom-fighters until the very end. It’s a bewildering decision. If their identities had been revealed earlier, it would have added dramatic tension. Will their secret be found out? Do they have inner turmoil about the things they must do to maintain their cover? Never mind that – it would be too interesting. Instead we watch awful collaborators commit war crimes for two hours. The big reveal is practically hidden in a post-credits scene.
There is an 11th-hour plot point where the Japanese commander shows Wang Yibo’s character intelligence on Japanese defenses in Manchuria, but it’s far too late in the film to mean anything to the story. Plus, it’s total nonsense. Why would the local garrison officer have secret battle plans for a region hundreds of miles to the north? There’s no reason he would have those plans, no reason anyone else would try to get them from him, and it’s not clear why the plans would make any difference in defeating the Empire. It makes zero sense. Think about it for one moment and you realized that Wang Yibo’s character was a loyal enforcer who got lucky after the occupation ended – no thanks to him. The movie comes across as the story of two secret Communist spies collaborating with the Japanese occupation instead of the story of two brave freedom fighters.
I still wonder if Hidden Blade could be re-edited into a good movie. Unless a director’s cut comes out, I can’t recommend it. Hidden Blade feels like an attempt to make a pro-Communist remake of Lust, Caution, but somehow it fails to be a movie and even fails to be effective propaganda.
Second Opinion: My partner says “When propaganda goes too hard, it makes everything stupid. I’m not surprised, but still disappointed. I have such a beef with this movie that I think I’ll just stick to Taiwanese movies from now on.” Harsh criticism from a diehard fan of both Tony Leung and Wang Yibo!
Instead, just watch Lust, Caution – which is an absolute masterpiece with the same historical setting. It has a tight focus on a sympathetic central character, the story builds layers upon layers of suspense, and director Ang Lee is at the top of his game. And, in contrast to the chaste but extremely violent Hidden Blade, Lust, Caution is absolutely saturated in sex.