Emerging from two-years of censorship limbo, Lou Ye’s noir melodrama The Shadow Play is every inch a film by the Sixth Generation maverick despite jarring indications of post-production strife. Although pitched as a fairly commercial procedural, the convoluted plot incorporates subjects that are extremely touchy by local standards – construction industry corruption, forced demolitions, subpar mental health treatment, and the scandal fixated news media are chastised before even the halfway mark. The released film is something of a wounded beast. There are awkward, even embarrassing, missteps but also spurts of indignant swagger that intermittently command attention.
It starts in the sprawling southern metropolis of Guangzhou during the property boom of the early 2010s with local planning director Tang Yijie (Zhang Songwen) being called to quell a riot at a district on the verge of redevelopment. Soon afterwards, Tang is found dead, having fallen from the roof of a derelict building. Plucky young detective Yang Jiadong (Jing Boran) is assigned to the case and is soon looking at Tang’s death from various angles. There’s the victim’s connection to Violet Gold Real Estate, run by a seedy property mogul, Jiang Zicheng (Qin Hao), who knew Tang when they were in the Communist Party in 1989. There’s also Tang’s seductive widow, Lin Hui (Song Jia), who has endured numerous beatings over the years. And it may dovetail with the hard luck circumstances of Yang cop father who was paralyzed in the line of duty while pursuing a case that involved Jiang. Yang makes waves with his hotheaded investigative approach only to end up suspended after unwittingly appearing in a sex tape that goes viral. When this doesn’t deter Yang from getting to the bottom of things, he’s framed for murder and flees to Hong Kong with a fake passport supplied by Lin Hui.
As seen in Summer Palace (2006) and Love and Bruises(2011), Lou has a palpable affinity for characters who find themselves in states of exile and one of the most arresting stretches here occurs when Yang is lying low in Hong Kong, witnessing the unraveling of his career through the Internet. Jing, best known for such mainstream fare as the Monster Hunt series (2015/18) and unashamedly sentimental romance Us and Them (2018), initially seems lost in Lou’s murky landscape. His performance gains confidence as the film progresses, though, especially when his disgraced cop has an emotional Hong Kong encounter with Tang’s daughter, Nuo (Ma Sichun), which crackles with Lou’s trademark desperate intensity.
While it may sound fairly linear, the narrative is presented in a knotty manner with ostensible central protagonist Yang absent for stretches to allow for unwieldy flashbacks that chronicle the high wire dynamic between Tang, Lin Hui, and Jiang from the late-1980s to 2013. As with much of Lou’s work, this is essentially an ensemble piece but while Summer Palace, Spring Fever (2009), and Blind Massage (2014) were driven by character psychology and a self-destructive need for sensation, The Shadow Play has a lot of plot to plough through across multiple locations (significant developments also occur in Taipei) in different time frames. Navigating labyrinthine narratives has never been Lou’s forte – just try synopsizing his wartime thriller Purple Butterfly (2003) after just one viewing – and The Shadow Play constantly has to double back for lengthy passages of explanation or recap the plot through news broadcasts. In fairness, some sequences find Lou at his most propulsive as he breathlessly charts the rise of Jiang’s real estate empire. Others, though, become rather exasperating, particularly when shifting from questionable corporate/political ties to shredding the false family image of the post-socialist elite.
Technically, the film oscillates between shoddy and razor sharp. These nagging fluctuations are demonstrated by two set pieces involving vehicles; the first is a laughably hysterical argument between two women which escalates when a pair of scissors are improbably pulled out, while the second is a crackerjack showdown in a truck with editor Zhu Jolin putting the viewer right in the mayhem. On the whole, events are shot in draining close-ups by cinematographer Jake Pollock with bursts of shaky cam that make it hard to follow the action whenever Yang gets into fisticuffs. However, imposing opening and closing wide shots of Guangzhou not only provide some sense of a megacity where criminality runs rampant during periods of accelerated development but also suggest the powerhouse procedural that Lou was presumably striving for.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).