HIDDEN MAN (2018) review

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After 2010’s Sichuan-set Let the Bullets Fly and 2014’s Shanghai-set Gone with the Bullets, Jiang Wen closes his amoral trilogy of Republican China epics with the Beijing-set Hidden Man, where bullets are much scarcer than blades and fists. In 1922, Li Tianran’s (Eddie Peng) adoptive father, a land owner in Northern China, was murdered by Zhu Qianlong (Liao Fan) and Nemoto Ichiro (Sawada Kenya), after refusing to sign over his land to the Japanese for opium cultivation. Tianran nearly escaped and was rescued by American expatriate doctor Wallace Handler (Andy Friend), who sent him to San Francisco to study medicine. Now, 15 years later, he goes by Bruce, is a licensed obstetrician, and more importantly a highly-trained special agent working for a shadowy businessman (Steven Schwankert, in a role initially played by Kevin Spacey but later entirely re-shot for obvious reasons). Tianran still has vengeance on his mind, and so he welcomes the mission to go fight the Japanese in occupied Beijing (renamed Beiping), as it also provides him with an opportunity to exact revenge on Zhu and Nemoto. In Beiping, he’s welcomed and initiated to the city’s volatile political dynamics by Wallace Handler, and must navigate a dangerous web of hidden agendas involving not only Zhu and Nemoto, but also the former’s femme fatale girlfriend Tang Fengyi (Xu Qing), as well as a mysterious – and beautiful – crippled tailor (Zhou Yun), and most of all Lan Qingfeng (Jiang Wen), a powerful businessman seemingly playing all sides.

In keeping with the previous two instalments in his Republican-China trilogy, Jiang Wen’s Hidden Manis a solidly entertaining, visually stylish but annoyingly self-infatuated whirlwind of conflicting artistic and narrative aspirations. Simply put, Jiang Wen wants to have his cake and eat it too, all the while marvelling at himself in a mirror. He strives for an epic feel, and for a sense of poignancy. The former he achieves effortlessly, thanks to such luxuries as Xie Zhengyu’s cinematography and Liu Qing’s art direction (both assuredly though almost understatedly lavish), a sprawling rooftop set, and Yan Hua and Kenji Tanigaki’s action direction (grounded and intricate, with occasional near-comic book flourishes). The latter, he attempts with a heightened sense of the tragic (nearly every character is eaten either by ambition or by vengefulness) and a score that combines the excellent French composer Nicolas Errèra (who here reprises a beautiful theme he composed for Benny Chan’s Shaolin) with classical pieces like a gut-wrenching extract from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

But Jiang wants this epic and poignant aspirations to co-habit with near-constant jokiness (Li Tianran, renamed Bruce, is thus “Bruce Lee”, and occasionally anachronistically mimics the legendary martial artists in fights), rapid-fire “smart” dialogue (essentially relentless wordplay, double-entendres, veiled threats and deadpan absurdities), and an overabundance of double-crosses that end up drowning out the primal vengeful momentum of the story, replacing it with a detached sense of tragic irony – not an uninteresting manoeuvre, but one that leaves the viewer with very little to chew on. Some narrative punchlines work well: Bruce has no less than four consecutive fathers in the film, leading to implore the doctors when he brings the latest, gravely injured, to the hospital: “please save him, I can’t lose yet another father”. But they remain mere punchlines, especially as Jiang Wen – as usual – seemingly instructed his lead cast to overact wildly, while himself remaining a cool, charismatic eye of the storm.

As Derek Elley noted in his review of the film, Eddie Peng seemingly reprises his role as the Monkey King from Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong: a dynamic, playful, easily-manipulated imp with rage bubbling under the surface; this actually seems almost apt, as the many rooftop scenes, juxtaposed with – but working almost as parentheses from – scenes on the ground, almost recreate a Heaven/Earth dichotomy. Yet in the end this only adds yet another tonally incongruous layer to an already overstuffed cake. Liao Fan throws all subtlety to the wind to act as a dangerous buffoon, while Xu Qing brings more slinky sex appeal to her role than the film can handle. Always best employed by her husband (Jiang himself), the all-too-rare Zhou Yun is again pure class and emotion, but in a role that has its own lateral, unresolved story; as if much of her scene had been cut out, or as if a spin-off was in the plans. Breaking with the tradition of disastrous, unknown Caucasian actors in Chinese films, Andy Friend is the film’s lone truly sympathetic figure in the film. Mild SpoilerNo wonder he’s abruptly offed.End Mild Spoiler.

Long Story Short: An entertaining and visually gorgeous tale of revenge and political intrigue, Hidden Man is also over-indulgent, over-stuffed and tonally muddled. **1/2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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