Hidden Man is the third of actor-director Jiang Wen's comic action films set in the 1930s, after the spectacularly good (and spectacularity lucrative) Let the Bullets Fly (2010) and the wonderfully ambitious if wildly uneven Gone with the Bullets (2014). The new picture, set in 1937 “Peiping”—the era’s name for Beijing—on the cusp of Japan declaring war on a hobbled and splintered China, is on the surface a simple tale of revenge. The dashing American-educated doctor Li Tianran (Eddie Pang) returns to his country to kill the two men who, when he was a child, shot to death and set on fire his adoptive father and martial arts master, his step-sister, and, so the killers thought, Tianran too. Sent abroad for his safety, Tianran has been training himself not just as a gynecologist (a fact in keeping with the film’s odd-ball, irreverent humor) but for vengeance as well, having been enlisted by a vague Sino-American espionage contingent—the Chinese part, Lan Qingfeng, being played by Jiang Wen himself—to return home and help prevent the Japanese from taking over. In Peiping, one of the killers is now the corrupt and execution-happy Chief of Police (Fan Liao, also seen this year in Jia Zhangke's Ash Is Purest White), and the other is a Japanese (Kenya Sawada) teaching Confucianism to locals and smuggling in opium on the side. In other words, our filial and handsome young man must rid the forthcoming Chinese nation of malignant Japanese invaders and homegrown collaborationists, while he also finds himself ping-ponging between the wiles of a collaborationist hussy (Summer Xu) and a beautiful seamstress of mysterious poise (Zhou Yun, who is also Jiang Wen's wife).
The scenario seems straight-forward, but with Jiang Wen a movie is anything but: the three blockbuster-style films he has made have approached the cinema with a rare kind of intellectual cartoonism, rife with ridiculous bluster, energy, and ideas, telling narratives that divert and double-back and complicate his stories on a dime, throwing them into convolutions where clear-cut relationships get charged with uneasy underground tensions. He has set these films in the 1930s when anything seemed to go in China and in which the director, too, is perhaps more free to mask his criticism. This era is a stage for a relentless jockeying for money, power, and the future of the nation, and Jiang loves to amp up the theatrical artificiality of that stage, whether the setting is a play on a wild west town (Let the Bullets Fly), the glamour of Shanghai movie-making (Gone with the Bullets), or a frothy mix of martial arts loyalties and espionage (Hidden Man). Less bloated than its two predecessors, this new film is also a bit less colorful and doesn’t reach for the delirium of imagination or comedy that the other two hit more regularly. But Jiang still has a remarkable touch, ribald, playful, and reflexive, shifting from one scene of the lyricism of the capital laden with snow to the lovingly comic gymnastics of Tianran leaping across the Beijing rooftops to rendezvous with one of his ladies, and from hilarious rapid-fire repartee to brutal violence directed with abrupt, gag-like spontaneity. Despite dextrous complications and reverses, Hidden Man never feels as rich and flagrantly ambiguous as the director’s previous two films. Yet, even if the sweet-yet-vengeful Tianran is the story’s star, Jiang Wen’s character ends up pulling all the strings, a puppet master of spycraft and manipulation, trying to wrangle all nations and motivations for his own purposes. Who’s to say that what’s hidden behind Hidden Man isn’t some other meaning, shrouded in the film’s delightful bluster?
We sat down with the director at the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his relationship to Beijing, his love of clashing tones, critics' ignorance, and the reception of his films.
NOTEBOOK: How do you see growing up in Beijing as impacting your art and your filmmaking?
JIANG WEN: Beijing...Beijing is probably the most important city in China—not because it's the capital city, but because it brings together people from all backgrounds. Over 80% of Beijingers are migrants, while 20%, or maybe less, are natives. Beijing is a bit like New York City, involving and mixing many different cultures. However, Beijing is different from New York or Shanghai, which are naturally created by a commercial spirit or financial culture. Many people doesn’t realize that Beijing is very close to the border with Mongolia. It was not a city that naturally formed, but was established for political and military purpose. Maybe I can explain it in this way… Many southern big cities in China were nurtured by their natural environments or resources. But since the Yuan Dynasty, Beijing has been a city built for the military needs. It’s not a city created by the nature, but man’s will; it’s a city that is created by human creativity, imagination—or even fantasy.
NOTEBOOK: Is part of the appeal of adapting Zhang Beihai’s book to create a Beijing that you haven’t seen?
JIANG: Very much so. You read about the old Beijing in books, and you’ve seen documentaries about it, but when I grew up in Beijing, the Beijing of that era was no longer there. It’s already been a very Soviet-like city. The appeal was very much to recreate that from different elements from my head and from archival footage.
NOTEBOOK: This is the third film of yours set in the Republican period. Is there something about this era that is unusually fruitful for your creativity?
JIANG: It’s possibly easier for censorship. Broadly speaking, it’s the Republican era, but actually the story is set in what we call “Beiyang,” when Yuan Shikai hadn’t already united the Northern part of China. It’s a period of many warring factions, warlords, each with their own currency, and their own structures of government—so it’s an interesting era in that sense. There were many different clashes and diverse characters. Different states, but no united states. It’s naturally very dramatic and leads itself to theatre.
NOTEBOOK: One of the things I very much like about all of your films is how many different tones and styles they seem to juggle. At once they’re very serious, then they’re goofy, funny, or romantic. Do you ever see yourself as making one kind of movie, or do you aim for a dynamic, complicated juggling of tone?
JIANG: No, I don’t have a particular tone or style that I want. The styles of my films depend on the different features of the different stories. I’m taken along by the narrative, the story itself. One is the story and one is myself [sighs, laughing]: It’s affected by my hormones, which were different when I was 35 compared to now, as a 55-year-old man.
NOTEBOOK: The contrast can be quite extreme, in this movie as in your others. For example, the bicycle scenes on the rooftops are very lyrical and sweet. But then, there’ll be this scene where the Japanese are executing the rickshaw drivers: Extreme violence, right next to this other lighter tone. It’s very bold to combine such different tones in the same movie.
JIANG: I think you are right. Perhaps, in my subconscious, I do like the contrast. I didn’t intentionally seek the contrast, though; it may be just my personality. It might also be because of how I grew up. The environment I was raised, or the life I experienced in my youth, was full of contrasting forces, clashing against each other.
NOTEBOOK: So you put your own sensibility of what makes you who you are into the story before you. Whether it’s a story based on somebody else’s book, or you're directing actors who are not yourself, there’s still something from you going through this material?
JIANG: You are definitely right! I’ve been asked this many times that, why the style of my films is so…unique, or different. To be very honest with myself, I didn’t pursue certain style in making films. The film is just what I saw from the history, as well as the current society of China. I can’t make a work that’s not from me. I can’t make a movie about things that I can’t see or detach myself from my experiences. Have you seen the movie, this one?
NOTEBOOK: Yes, of course!
JIANG: The other ones?
NOTEBOOK: Yes, all!
JIANG: Okay, so you know—you’re on the right side, then, but I don’t understand how some journalists sit there, asking me questions, but they didn’t see the movie! Many journalists before you asked a lot of questions like why my filmmaking style is bizarre, but they didn’t watch the movie. That’s weird! But I watch them, I remember them, and I make films like that. They just made up some questions, or just asked me questions heard from other journalists. How can I explain to them before they’ve watched it? [Shrugging, laughing] What can you do?
NOTEBOOK: Well, let me ask a question that shows you I’ve seen the other films: To my memory, all your previous movies have voiceover narration, usually by you, narration that throws the reality of what's before us into doubt. The stories are frames by “Maybe this happened,” “I remember it was like this…” “It could have been like this…” Why did you remove this framing device for Hidden Man?
JIANG: I love the commentary narration because I feel that everyone is affected by their own memory and their recollection of their own memory. A character’s narration is not them trying to deceive you, but because his narrative, or his memory, has been changed or affected by his feelings and emotions, his closeness to events, and could be led astray. You think that’s how it happened, but sometimes one’s memory can’t be trusted. I used this narration when I was guessing, or to keep the audience guessing. I didn’t use the voiceover in Hidden Man because a lot of critics and the audiences often said they don’t understand my movies. That’s why I chose not to continue doing this; however, they still said they don’t understand! Maybe because this film has more storylines than regular films.
NOTEBOOK: Could we talk for a moment about your character in this film? Because it struck me afterwards that maybe your character is the protagonist. Even though he’s in the middle of the drama rather than leading it, somehow he’s the one arranging—or maybe directing—the narrative of events. He’s in charge of getting people where they need to be, making sure things happen.
JIANG: No, I don’t think so. Lan Qingfeng is a person who overestimates himself. He thinks he’s the kind of person who could be a puppet master, in control of everything, but actually it’s way beyond him, and he’s misunderstanding himself. That’s why in the end he loses all his teeth: he’s lost everything, but he’s still thinking that he’s controlling the stakes.
NOTEBOOK: He’s lost everything, but he’s achieved what he wanted to do, hasn't he?
JIANG: Maybe it is because he kept moving with the times. But in fact, what truly changed the boy, Li Tianran, and pushed his development was the two female characters.
NOTEBOOK: Your first three films were very successful at international film festivals and your latest three are big blockbusters at home. Do you think of local and international audiences when you’re making your films?
JIANG: I can’t say that I don’t think of the differences between international audiences, or festivals, arthouses, blockbusters, or Chinese domestic audiences, but honestly I don’t have a clue how to make sense of it. For example, my first movie, In the Heat of the Sun, won the awards at Venice and many other international film festivals. But was also the champion of the Chinese box office that year. I had no idea why it was like this. My main priority is to make a film that I like, that I believe in. The next film, Devils on the Doorstep, won a prize at Cannes but I wasn’t making it for Cannes or French audiences. I was very much making it for Chinese audiences. I made that film because I felt strongly to allow Chinese audiences to rethink [the 1937–1945 war with Japan]. But it was banned. So I really can’t think about what is going to come. It’s like ceramic-making: you put the glaze on it, you put it in the kiln, and when it comes out it might not be what you expected at all. The color might be completely out of your imagination.
NOTEBOOK: Did the end result of this film surprise to you?
JIANG: I didn’t expect the film to receive such divided reactions. Some people like it very much, while others hated it. I was talking earlier about how I like “contrast,” and it eventually is reflected in the distribution and the reception of the film—two totally opposite opinions. Many people loved it, but some people hated or said they didn’t understand it. That polarization was a bit of a shock.