'Hidden Man' ('Xie Bu Ya Zheng'): Film Review

Let the gags fly.

Chinese actor-helmer Jiang Wen's latest larger-than-life blockbuster, set in a spy-infested China in the 1930s, will make its international bow as a gala title in Toronto.

Two years after his first onscreen foray into Hollywood, Rogue One, Chinese actor-director Jiang Wen returns to his native land with what he describes as a "Hamlet in Beijing, and Bruce Lee navigating Casablanca." Considering the plot revolves around a Chinese spy's revenge against those who killed his kung-fu master, it's not difficult to see what he means. Or to use a more recent yardstick, Hidden Man’s talky standoffs and visceral violence recall a Chinese equivalent of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

A loose adaptation of Beijing-born, Taipei-raised writer Zhang Beihai's novel Xia Yin ("The Reclusive Hero"), Hidden Man is the final installment in Jiang's film trilogy set in intrigue-laden, interwar China of the 1930s. Whereas Let the Bullets Fly (2010) and Gone With the Bullets (2014) came with contemporary political metaphors aplenty, the current film is vaguer in referring to today’s China.

Privileging the narrative and scintillating action scenes over social critique, the notoriously fiery director has delivered perhaps his most straightforward blockbuster — its bombastic Chinese title, which roughly translates as "Evil Never Defeats the Just," speaks volumes about the film and how it takes aim at the viewer's heart rather than mind.

The movie, partly financed by the Warner Bros.-owned Flagship Entertainment, stars box-office gold Eddie Peng (Operation Mekong, DuckweedWu Kong) and festival favorite Liao Fan (winner of the best actor award at the 2014 Berlinale for the neonoir Black Coal, Thin Ice). With these credentials, Hidden Man should have easily swept the board upon its release in China on July 13. But Jiang was left to curse his luck as the film was overshadowed by the sustained run of the government-endorsed social dramedy Dying to Survive.

While that anti-Big Pharma drama continues to keep the tills ringing — it has already raked in $426 million as it enters its third week of release — Hidden Man's haul stalled at $82 million near the end of its second week. It's entirely possible the film will fall short of matching Jiang's career-best gross of $94 million for Let the Bullets Fly — and that's from eight years ago. The film's second coming could lie on the festival circuit, starting with its gala presentation slot in Toronto. The film might also interest niche distributors aiming for a limited release targeted at martial arts fans.

The original wuxia novel on which it’s based is deemed a classic because of its detailed description of the living habits prevalent in China’s imperial capital in the 1930s, and how they reflect on China in the present day. Casting all this aside in an adaptation co-penned with three other screenwriters, Jiang has delivered a romp that, at the end of the day, is hard to empathize with. A dazzling but derivative piece oozing with adrenaline and anachronistic gags — including what's possibly a preemptive dig at film critics — Hidden Man more or less melts into a gust of hot air.

The story opens with arguably one of the goriest scenes in recent Chinese cinema. A martial arts master's intimate birthday dinner turns into a bloodbath when his treacherous disciple Zhu Qianlong (Liao) and his Japanese accomplice Nemoto (Kenya Sawada) shoot and decapitate those in attendance before dousing the corpses with gasoline and setting them alight. But the youngest of the victims isn't dead yet: The burning boy races from the house into the path of a passing car.

Fifteen years later, having survived the massacre and moved to San Francisco, Li Tianran (Peng) has grown into a handsome, athletic, sharpshooting U.S. spy known as "Bruce." His superiors send him to Peiping (as Beijing was known in the 1930s) to become a sleeper agent in what they call "a brain-dead country" with "a dysfunctional central nervous system." (This being 1937, characters are allowed to insult China any way they want, to highlight the chaotic state of the country before the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.)

For the young man, of course, revenge is first and foremost on his mind. In Peiping, Tianran reunites with his foster father, an aptly named U.S. doctor called Handler (Andy Friend), who briefs him about the situation — the Japanese are just outside the city gates, waiting for a pretext to charge in — and introduces him to the town’s rich and famous.

There's Lan (played by director Jiang himself), a shady businessman who wheels and deals with anyone and everyone in his attempt to form a patriotic front against the impending Japanese invasion. Tianran discovers his two sworn enemies are sitting pretty: Zhu, his master's killer, has become the city's police chief, while Nemoto has transformed himself into a spiritual guru preaching the merits of Confucianism to Chinese students.

As he immerses himself in this chaotic realm, Tianran becomes entangled with two women representing virtue and vice. The former is embodied in Qiaohong (Zhou Yun), a graceful, well-connected seamstress plotting revenge against someone she has never seen; the latter is Zhu's mistress, Fengyi (Summer Xu, Looper), playing the gaudy femme fatale to lead Tianran astray.

With all its labyrinthine power dynamics, derring-do, double crosses and machine-gun conversations, Hidden Man demands the viewer's full attention. Even then, it sometimes feels like a ceaseless runaround about nothing in particular. Even Tianran, probably the only character with a clear goal in mind, goes through puzzling phases: In one moment a determined avenger, he is found bawling his eyes out in the next scene and naively frolicking with his puppy love on a rooftop a few minutes later.

And there are a lot of rooftop scenes. Like a young parkour free runner, Tianran spends a sizable chunk of his screen time running, leaping and cycling across the ancient city's tiled skyline (his courtship of Qiaohong unfolds inside a bell tower). While production designer Liu Qing has done a wonderful job on these backdrops, all the above-ground action detaches the film from history and the daily lives unfolding below.

Production companies: Beijing Buyilehu Film and Culture, Wuxi Zizai Entertainment
Cast: Eddie Peng, Liao Fan, Zhou Yun, Jiang Wen, Summer Xu
Director: Jiang Wen
Screenwriters: Jiang Wen, He Jiping, Li Fei, Sun Yue, based on a novel by Zhang Beihai
Producers: Mu Shen, Albert Lee, Kang Li, Andrew Lazar, Zhao Yijun
Executive producers: Jiang Wen, Richard Fox, Albert Yeung, Yang Wei, Zheng Zhihao, Zhou Yun
Director of photography: Xie Zhengyu
Production designers: Liu Qing
Costume designer: Dong Zhongmin, Uma Wang
Music: Nicolas Errera
Editing: Zhang Qi, Jiang Wen, Cao Weijie
In Mandarin, Japanese and English
138 minutes