'The Shadow Play': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A story lost to technique.

Chinese art house auteur Lou Ye ('Suzhou River') tries his hand at a dense police thriller.

There’s more to the art of the thriller than exciting cutting and dizzying camerawork, as evidenced in the misguided police actioner The Shadow Play (a.k.a. Cloud in the Wind) directed by art house auteur Lou Ye. The story of a young cop investigating a wealthy family of real estate developers is grotesquely complicated and practically indecipherable, at least for foreigners reading the English subtitles. It certainly looks stylish — not in the clean, we-know-what-we’re-doing fashion of fast-moving Hong Kong shoot-'em-ups, but in an arty way that puts atmosphere above making sense. The Berlin Panorama title, no doubt selected on behalf of Lou’s festival followers, is a perplexing disappointment. It bowed at the Taipei Golden Horse Festival in November.

This is not the first time the director has approached genre, though the films that have won Lou acclaim are art house titles like Suzhou River; the politically charged Summer Palace, which earned sanctions from the Chinese authorities; and the gay-themed Spring Fever. The current film has two big, tension-laden car-accident scenes, which recall his 2012 thriller Mystery about a man with several mistresses and the death of one of them in a crash. The Shadow Play attempts to create an atmosphere of danger by editing the story into bits and pieces, then jumping back and forth in time and place, from the modern city of Guangzhou in southern China to swinging Hong Kong. The result is akin to pressing “shuffle” on an iPod — and good luck with making sense.

The story begins clearly enough with a strong social critique. It’s 2013 and Violet Gold Real Estate developers are in the process of bulldozing an overpopulated slum to build the new China. Residents are up in arms because no compensation settlement has been reached and a huge riot ensues. Mr. Tang (Zhang Songwen), the head of Violet Gold, turns up in his limo with a police escort and, braving the mob’s fury, tries to calm them down. But in the chaos he becomes the first victim, falling off the roof of a building to his death.

Although no one has seen him fall, the police are certain it’s murder. A cop asks Tang’s wife whether her husband had any enemies, a hilarious question under the circumstances. Young cop Yang (Jing Boran of Monster Hunt) is put in charge of the investigation, perhaps because he was on the scene when Tang bit the dust.

Pensive and good-looking, but anonymous in his jeans jacket and bad haircut, Yang does not seem like hot detective material. He got on the force only because his cop father was paralyzed in action while on a case. Yang decides on the spot it was an inside job, someone from the family or business circle who bumped Tang off. Research shows that Tang and his bosom buddy and business partner, Jiang Zicheng (played with a villainous little moustache by Lou regular Qin Hao), were in the Communist Party together in 1989. Also, they were both in love with the same college belle, Lin Hui (Song Jia). She ended up marrying Tang, who in later years beat her viciously in front of their daughter Nuo (Ma Sichun). But her relationship with Jiang is far from over.

Jiang married an attractive torch singer from Taiwan, Lian Ah Yun (Michelle Chen), who was possibly the woman locked up in a mental asylum for many years before vanishing. To find out more, Yang barges into family dinners and then forms a liaison with Mrs. Tang, which lands him in a sex scandal. Later he has a rendezvous with a man who has snapped the picture of a woman who was on the roof of the building at the time Tang fell. But the man dies in his arms, and passersby start screaming that Yang killed him. Instead of pulling out his police badge and asserting his authority, Yang panics and flees to Hong Kong, where he lands in the bed of Tang’s daughter Nuo, a rich schoolgirl in search of love.

The political undercurrents, which Chinese audiences will perceive more clearly, would have added a fascinating dimension to the film had they only been allowed to emerge. For example, the swiftly recounted history of Violet Gold, told to the strains of a Mozart violin concerto, shows the continual interface of company managers Tang and Jiang with the political world, which spells big-time bribes.

In the main role, the passive, expressionless Jing Boran seems much too soft and unfocused for detective work. Having no guns, no martial arts skills and not being much of a street fighter, he is best at escaping from the police. Song as Mrs. Tang and Chen as Mrs. Jiang are distinctive in their roles, but their characters overlap confusingly as identities shift.

Production companies: Dream Factory, CKF Pictures
Cast: Jing Boran, Song Jia, Qin Hao, Ma Sichun, Zhang Songwen, Michelle Chen
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriters: Mei Feng, Qiu Yujie, Ma Yingli
Producers: Nai An, Lou Ye
Executive producer: Zhang Jialu
Director of photography: Jake Pollock
Editor: Jolin Zhu
Music: Johan Johannsson, Jonas Colstrup
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

125 minutes