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Hidden Man
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by Jay Seaver

"Frantic but fun."
3 stars

"Hidden Man" is the third of writer/director/co-star Jiang Wen "bullets" trilogy, with a detour to Hollywood to be part of "Rogue One" in between, and it's got to be sort of an odd sensation, doing this sort of sprawling epic in the shadow of the sheer amount of resources Disney was throwing at "Star Wars". It almost seems to have Jiang trying to do too much even without making more than the usual effort to include a Western audience, making for a packed, frantic, but often pretty enjoyable bit of period action.

It starts with a martial-arts master celebrating his birthday by betrothing his daughter and his adopted son Li Tianran, only to have someone crash the party - Zhu Qianlong (Liao Fan), a former student the Master has disowned for working with the occupying Japanese forces. He and compatriot Ichiro Nemoto (Kenya Sawada) slaughter the whole family, or so they think - Li escapes and is found by American doctor Wallace Hendler (Andy Friend), who adopts him and sends him to America to study medicine. Fifteen years later, in the 1930s, "Bruce Hendler" (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen) returns to Beijing to work alongside his father in the hospital and support the resistance on behalf of the American government. And, of course, to seek revenge on Zhu, now the chief of police, and Nemoto, now the leader of a gang of assassins. An ally will supposedly reveal themselves with a codeword, but is it Zhu's mistress Tang Fengyi (Summer Xu Qing)? Lan Qingfeng (Jiang), a businessman with his hands in a little bit of everything, legal or not? Guan Qiaohong (Zhou Yun), a master seamstress going through painful rehab to reverse the foot-binding done to her as a child? Any of them could also be working for the Japanese, or the Nationalist armies, and "Bruce" must keep his true identity secret, as Zhu has framed him for the murder of his master.

Jiang and company hit the ground running and don't ever stop for very long, finding skimpy reasons for Li to either get into fights or do the sort of running and jumping on rooftops that has similar energy - and when a physical confrontation isn't warranted, he gets into arguments or pushes at people in a way that suggests he never learned much about not calling attention to himself lest he blow his cover. Even when the story calls for him to lie low later on, he gets the sort of itchy feet that has him seemingly spending more time visiting Guan than hiding away. It's the sort of headstrong hero Gordon Liu used to play without the arc that has him learning discipline at the Shaolin Temple, and while it's kind of obnoxious, Eddie Peng generally finds a way to play Li Tianran so that his bull-headedness is wrapped up with having his eyes on the prize, with a certain cockiness that comes from feeling like he's taken in the best parts of both his Chinese and American backgrounds that crosses over into arrogance just often enough that the audience can enjoy when he faceplants because of it. There's a lot about this guy that should rub the audience the wrong way, but doesn't quite, which is a good thing: There's a lot of Bruce/Li (rimshot) in this movie, and it would collapse if he burned out his goodwill early.

He's got a fun ensemble to work against, too, most notably Liao Fan, who does a nice job of making Zhu both a preening villain with delusions of grandeur - he believes himself a descendant of the Ming Dynasty whom the Japanese will restore to the throne - and dangerous ruthlessness, well-matched in a fight with Peng but also just generally a dangerous and cunning loose cannon. Zhou Yun is an equal whose Guan is smarter and more grounded than Li, enough to throw off sparks and play off Peng entertainingly when the pair grow more aligned, with Xu Qing playing a different shade of that as a woman who is well aware of what she can get with just the possibility of sex. Andy Friend acquits himself much better than most folks in his situation do - he's one of those Westerners that shows up in Chinese movies with relatively few acting credits because it's harder to tell how well someone acting in a foreign language is doing, but he's apparently picked up enough in a career doing everything else around the movie business to communicate Hendler's parental angst well, and both he and Peng are comfortably bilingual enough that their arguments and banter can bounce between languages as needed.

It's a lot going on and moving fast, but Jiang and the martial-arts team of Kenji Tanigaki and Yan Hua build some great set-pieces, and even when there's not punching, kicking, or shooting going on, they're maintaining a high energy level. A lot of it is played light and fast-paced enough to get a laugh right up until the point where things get real, quick enough to get past a lot of things the plot skips past. Some of that is because the local audience likely knows more about the real events in the background, and some is because the film was retooled at points to get a pass from the film board. It's slickly produced and has nice effects when needed, although it's sometimes stretched.

I'd love to see the original cut of this, because it's not difficult at all to see where subplots were cut out and the film had to be put back together, but that's not exactly likely. What's left is fast and exciting, enough that I'm excited to go back and see the other two films in the set.

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originally posted: 03/01/21 15:28:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Wen Jiang

Written by
  Jiping He
  Wen Jiang
  Fei Li

  Wen Jiang
  Eddie Peng
  Fan Liao
  Yun Zhou
  Qing Xu
  Meng Li
  Agata Buzek

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