A Film a Week - The Shadow Play

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

There is a lot of controversy about the Chinese films being pulled out of this year´s Berlinale. Having in mind that Generation title "Better World" was yanked out just before the festival and Zhang Yimou´s "One Second" was canceled and replaced by his old title "Hero" just days before its scheduled premiere, some might say that the sensitive situation with Ye Lou´s "The Shadow Play" (it got its permission from the national board shortly before the festival) got resolved without much fuss. The film was screened at Panorama and faced immediate positive reactions from the international press.
It is a crime story in a noir-like mystery key set in the ever-growing city of Guangzhou and amongst its real estate tycoon elite. In the midst of the turmoil about an urban development project that would leave a number of poor people homeless, the supposed leading man behind it Tang Yijie (Zhang Songwen) was found murdered. The hotshot police detective Yang Jiadong (Jing Boran) is assigned to the case and his investigation leads him in a number of counter-intuitive ways that might concern the murdered man´s business and personal ties. He is a man of a peculiar past connected with the town´s most influential businessman Jiang Zicheng (Qin Hao) in ways that exceed just business partnership.
Yang finds himself on a slippery road at the early stages of investigation when he gets involved with Tang´s long-suffering wife Lin (Song Jia) who also turns out to be Jiang´s lover. Tang´s daughter Nuo (Ma Sichun) might also be involved and a mysterious disappearance of a company woman Lian Ah Yun (Michelle Chen) seems to be the key for resolving the murder. Is Yang going to be successful in the battle of the wits with his richer and more influential advisories?
"The Shadow Play" is the film with a more than a fitting title where the viewer is spoon-fed the information about a very complicated plot masterfully written by Mei Feng, Qiu Yujie and Ma Yingli. As a director, Ye is does a good work, showcasing his perfect sense of rhythm and the ability to control the tempo, profiting on perfectly timed shocking revelations, sharp left-turns and nicely packed flashback moments that provide the key information about the characters and relationships.
Production design is also compelling for the story that stretches over the course of two decades and three major metropolitan cities in three different systems (Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei). The camerawork by Jake Pollock based usually on shaky hand-held shots sometimes suits the film well, while occasionally getting exhausting, especially when overdone in action scenes. The blurred colours are generally a nice touch.
Regarding the acting, there was not much to be done since most of the characters fit the noir genre types, while regular bursts of melodrama from the story background also take their toll on the actors. However, the complicity of the crime and corruption plot and the sheer intrigue of it propel "The Shadow Play" to the ranks of an essential watch for genre lovers with a special taste for contemporary Chinese cinema.

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