Review: The Shadow Play

Ye Lou was once touted as one of the most significant new mainland China directors of the millennium after the overseas success of the atmospheric Suzhou River, a reputation that was further bolstered by his 2006 Tiananmen epic Summer Palace, which was banned by the government. Since then, however, he’s mostly coasted on noirish melodramas that retain his distinctively dreamy tone to tell stories that don’t really require it. His latest is a conventional police mystery built around China’s corruption-fueled real estate market—it takes place between 1989 and 2012. 

For sure, the ambitious opening scene, a long, panoramic moving drone shot of urban decay and demolition in the southern city of Guangzhou, provokes expectations the remaining film never meets. The mystery launches with the mysterious death of a local functionary, Tang (Zhang Songwen), after he tries to quell a riot of apartment block residents who are being forced out of their homes by a redevelopment project. The young police detective, Yang (Jing Boran), can’t decide if Tang fell, jumped, or was pushed from the fifth floor of one of the new buildings, and his suspicions quickly focus on Tang’s wife, the psychologically unstable restaurateur Lin Hui (Song Jia), who he quickly learns is in a romantic relationship with the Taiwan-based real estate mogul Jiang (Qin Hao). As it turns out, Jiang knew Yang’s father, a police detective himself who was forced to retire after a traffic accident left him partially paralyzed. As Yang gets closer to the truth he’s continually set up by unknown forces, thus compelling him to become a fugitive as he continues investigating the relationship between Tang, Jiang, and a fourth wheel, Yun (Michelle Chen), a former bar hostess who became Jiang’s associate in charge of dirty work and whose death in 2006 his father had been investigating when he had his accident. Then there’s Tang’s daughter, Nuo (Sichun Ma), who has secrets of her own.

Though there’s nothing wrong with this story itself, Ye ties it all up in knots with a barrage of elaborate flashbacks and flash-forwards whose only purpose seems to be to make the movie much longer than it needs to be. They also have the effect of highlighting the lack of credible motivations that spur all the strife between the various characters, resulting inevitably in overwrought scenes of violence that seem to have been contractually mandated. The only one of these that made me sit up and nod approvingly was a fight between Yang and a group of gangsters in a moving RV that was so surreal it could have been taking place in zero gravity. Had Ye fashioned the whole movie in this bizarre way, he might have made something even less coherent but at least kinetically interesting. 

In Cantonese and Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku K’s Cinema (03-3352-2471).

The Shadow Play home page in Japanese

photo (c) Dream Factory, Travis Wei

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