Toward the tip of Hidden Blade (无名), the arty Chinese World War II spy thriller that has now reached US cinemas, every thing involves a halt.
“Matte kudasai,” Wang Yibo, taking part in the canny, cautious Secretary Ye, says in silky Japanese. Wait, please.
And then all of us — the character he’s speaking to, the digicam, the movie rating, the viewers, the film — decelerate and wait. We anticipate him to mild a cigarette, take a drag, then one other. We anticipate him to take a look at his reflection. We watch him, wreathed in smoke, take his time.
With a lesser actor, this might really feel extreme, showy; it might flatten the second. But that is Wang Yibo, star of The Untamed and Street Dance of China, former Okay-pop idol, someday bike racer, multitalented polymath, and multinational heartthrob. In the pause, pressure and darkish function coil in his jawline, his shoulders, in each flick of his wrist. I’ve by no means wished to take a look at something extra in my life.
Hidden Blade has gone largely unnoticed in mainstream US media, normally getting name-checked because the legendary Tony Leung’s newest movie. The New York Times gave it a sort however combined capsule assessment. Other shops that bothered to assessment it did so poorly, with a number of reviewers unable to inform forged members other than each other (!), a handful misunderstanding and misstating the plot, one reviewer dismissing your complete forged other than Leung. Several wrote it off as a propaganda movie.
But Hidden Blade, from writer-director Cheng Er, deserves a significantly better vital evaluation than this. It serves propaganda solely in the best way that the typical warfare film would possibly glorify the homeland — suppose Top Gun: Maverick. In this case, which means a homeland battered by a brutal Japanese occupation. Our timeline facilities round Republic-era China, a number of years after the Nanjing Massacre. The nation’s combative factions — the Japanese occupants, the Kuomintang management, the present puppet authorities, and the underground communist resistance — all vie to regulate China’s future because the warfare wages round them. Our principal characters, Director He (Leung) and his subordinate Secretary Ye (Wang), each work for the Japanese regime in Shanghai, rooting out members of every of the opposing factions and doing the governor’s bidding. But spies are in every single place, and their allegiances aren’t at all times apparent — typically not even to themselves.
Hidden Blade’s manufacturing home, Bona Film Group, loosely positioned this movie right into a “trilogy” referred to as the China Victory Trilogy. (The prior movie, The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021), was a mega-blockbuster; this movie had a much more lowkey launch, although it’s been so successful — closing on $1 billion RMB, it’s reportedly the top-grossing artwork movie in Chinese historical past — that there’s speak of a sequel.) Each movie, linked thematically however not materially, highlights a unique group of unusual folks battling a warfare. This outing explores the pressures positioned on WWII spies who typically needed to work in full isolation for months and even years; the movie’s Chinese title interprets to Anonymous. Cheng takes the smoke-and-mirrors obfuscation of the spy style actually: Ye spends a lot of the time he’s onscreen symbolically mirroring He, whereas finding out himself in mirrors, being checked out via mirrors, and functioning as a looking-glass for the movie itself.
This might all simply really feel like shallow gloss with little substance, and the plot appears comparatively skinny; however over the course of the movie, that plot reveals itself to be a tightly edited jigsaw awaiting your meeting.
This is an enormous a part of why repeated viewings of Hidden Blade are such a pleasure (I noticed it six occasions in 4 days). The movie is a metaphorical escape room you discover your manner via, muddling at first, then faster and faster till you arrive at an open door. Cheng’s aesthetic fashion glints via the muted motion of the primary half, from Godard-like formalism to von Trier-esque visible warfare poetry to outright Tarkovsky homages. But steadily the stylistic thrives give method to a riveting, sparse thriller with phenomenal battle scenes, staged with glorious consideration to setting and element by battle choreographer Chao Chen. Cai Tao’s cinematography has lingered with me for days, with some photographs cracking the entire movie broad open for me on third or fourth watch.
This movie basks in tiny thematic particulars — the timing of a musical cue, the symbolism of a tableau, the best way a personality’s face is lit between mild and shadow. Then there’s the symbology; my buddies have been discussing the thematic component of meals on this film for days: The symbolism of an intimidating bowl of drunken shrimp, the political nuances of debates over French delicacies, the secrets and techniques of an unassuming field of pastry.
In different phrases, Hidden Blade’s cerebral challenges invite you to play the video games its characters are taking part in. It opens itself to the viewers an increasing number of with each repeat viewing. The supporting forged makes probably the most of restricted emotional actual property; Eric Wang and Zhou Xun sink their enamel into their very totally different roles within the spy recreation. Tony Leung’s efficiency specifically grows craftier and extra clever on each viewing as you start to know the veneer of well mannered soullessness round which he layers his actual, veiled feelings. The moments he lets them peek via are masterful to behold.
But as a lot as Tony Leung was made for refined however heady roles like this, Hidden Blade belongs to Wang Yibo, and so does this assessment.
This is Yibo, in any case, a 25-year-old wunderkind who spent his childhood coaching in Korea to turn out to be a Okay-pop idol however who returned to China and have become a Chinese entertainer slash dance star slash actor as a substitute. I first wrote about Yibo right here in 2020 in my assessment of the historic fantasy sequence The Untamed. I described him then as “conveying Grand Canyons of emotional depth” via “mesmerizing infinitesimal facial adjustments.”
Since then, I’ve watched Yibo disappear into one strikingly totally different character after one other, embodying all of them with expertise and talent past his years; I’ve watched him ship efficiency after efficiency, reworking himself onstage and off. He has a star high quality that’s exhausting to explain till you really get acquainted together with his performances and his persona. On first impression, he’s hardly ever the most well liked or the strongest or the glitziest entertainer in a room — however he’s the one who unfailingly blows you away in the long run, the one you’ll be able to’t cease speaking about.
As Secretary Ye, Yibo packs the identical depth: He smolders and throbs and pulses his manner via Hidden Blade, speaking solely hardly ever however talking volumes with the soulful eyes that first captivated me and a jillion different followers three years in the past.
Since The Untamed, Yibo has turn out to be a large star in his dwelling nation. He was initially scheduled to make his movie debut within the way more high-profile Born to Fly (now scheduled for a spring launch), wherein he stars because the equal to Tom Cruise in Top Gun. As a lot stress as a job like that have to be to play, the burden Yibo carries in Hidden Blade feels nearly heavier. Cheng has talked at size about how the extra he noticed Yibo act, the larger his half grew to become; he rewrote the movie round Yibo as manufacturing progressed, ultimately reworking Ye from a smaller half into the soul of the film.
That’s an enormous accountability, however Yibo shoulders it effortlessly. He immerses himself in Ye’s tortured psyche; he trembles and seethes and modifications the temper of a whole scene with a single sharp look. A debut like this, from an actor this younger, in a component this intense, carrying your complete movie beside certainly one of China’s best residing actors, all whereas juggling 4 totally different languages (Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese and Shanghainese dialects) feels exceptional. Yibo’s efficiency seals Hidden Blade’s standing as an sudden pleasure. Once lastly assembled, its cinematic intricacies yield infinite rewards.