Wen Jiang, he doesn't make too many films, but he sure makes them count. Seeing a new film from Jiang is always somewhat of an event, if only because he has the unique ability to combine more serious storytelling with playful winks and nudges. Hidden Man [Xie Bu Ya Zheng] is the third and final installment in Jiang's unofficial gangster trilogy. While the films share very little beyond tone and atmosphere, they make for a nice collection of movies that put the combination of quality film making and entertainment up front. Only one question remained: would Jiang be able to bounce back from the slightly disappointing second installment?
Wen Jiang is one of those directors who started out on the arthouse-leaning side of Chinese cinema and slowly edged his way to more commercial outings, though in such a way that he wouldn't blindly venture into full-blown blockbuster territory. Jiang never quite lost his arthouse aesthetic, but embraced elements of genre cinema and brought them together in such a way that made it very clear that it wasn't to be taken too seriously. Old fans of Jiang might not appreciate this change, but it certainly made him into a more unique director.
Hidden Man is an early 20th century martial arts revenge thriller. The tone of the film is not quite unlike Kaige Chen's more recent work, the biggest difference is that Jiang isn't doing straight comedy, but layers his films with a kind of tangible awareness that the plot and characters are mere hooks for some cinematic fun and escapism. There's a lightness and malleability of plot that allows him to do things that are generally not possible with this kind of material, at least not without the films drifting off into total absurdity. It's an exercise in balance that Jiang had down to a tee.
The plot centers around a basic revenge setup. As a kid, Li Tianran witnesses the murder of his entire family. Li too is left for dead by his assailants, but he is rescued by a doctor who just happens to pass by and takes Li with him to America to recover. When Li reaches adulthood he returns to China, hoping to take revenge on the people that ruined his childhood. Of course, things don't go quite as planned and Li gets caught in a web of betrayal, uncertain of people's agendas and intentions. It's all pretty standard genre fare, no doubt most people are already familiar with the ins and outs of revenge cinema.
Visually there is very little to complain about. It's not the most beautiful Chinese film I've ever seen, but cinematographer Zhengyu Xie clearly got his act together after Gone with the Bullets. Not that that was an ugly-looking film, but it definitely wasn't on the level of other recent Jiang productions. The setting and locations (lots of rooftop scenes) look incredibly lush, the colors are bright and clear, camera work is precise and the editing adds a nice flow to the film. The use of CG is not quite perfect, but it is sparse and not too distracting, especially considering the somewhat comical feel of Hidden Man. All in all, this is an impressive-looking film.
As with most Chinese films (and definitely the big budget ones), the soundtrack is way less distinctive. It's a shame because Jiang's collaborations with Joe Hisaishi were always a step up from the norm, Errèra can't quite live up to that same standard. I can't say the soundtrack is bad or feels particularly out of place, it just doesn't add much of its own. I think I've written this very paragraph one too many times already, but to me cinema's biggest opportunity for progression is no doubt in the sound department. Sometimes good enough simply isn't good enough anymore.
The casting on the other hand is absolutely on point. Eddie Peng has that exact combination of cinematic martial arts flair, boyish charm and sneaky wit that his character calls for. Strong secondary performances of Fan Liao, Yun Zhou and Wen Jiang himself further increase the quality of the cast. Everybody seems in on the joke, which is absolutely crucial for a film like this. Hidden Man is never allowed to become a full-blown comedy, yet it has to remain light at all times. Peng and the others make sure that balance is maintained perfectly.
The first third of the film is spent on setting up the story, the middle part has people double-crossing each other and trying to get the upper hand while the third and final part brings the bulk of the action. It's a fun but expected structure that keeps things interesting, while making sure the best is kept for last. Don't expect too much originality in plot or twists though, you're simply not going to find that here. It's all about Jiang's particular execution, which more than makes up for any predictability.
Hidden Man is a great ending to Jiang's trilogy. It's not the best of the three films, but after a slightly disappointing second installment it brings the quality level back up to where it needs to be. Hidden Man is an insanely entertaining, clever, tongue in cheek revenge flick that features a stellar cast, stylish visuals and some very solid action sequences. It'll be interesting to see what Wen Jiang will come up with next, but for now I'm happy to bask in the warm afterglow of this film.