The Shadow Play review – money worship and gangster capitalism in China | Film

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Lou Ye is a Chinese director who has courageously challenged the authorities, receiving bans and rebukes from a Beijing establishment nonetheless wary of their troublemaker’s international prominence at film festivals. This is probably most true of his 2006 movie, Summer Palace, that tackled the great taboo: Tiananmen Square. Latterly though, he seems to be drawn to the noir-melodrama mode, simmering emotions and criminal secrets incubated in the vast new megacities which China has been building. That was true of his aptly titled 2012 film, Mystery, and it’s true of his initially intriguing, but ultimately exasperating, overlong and borderline preposterous new mystery drama-thriller, set in Guangzhou, southern China, whose scary vastness Ye establishes in his opening shots.

Perhaps Ye took inspiration from screenwriter Robert Towne’s final line from Roman Polanski’s famous film: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” The audience may be tempted to forget about this film way before the closing credits, although by the time we finally grind through to the end – zigzagging wearyingly between flashbacks and flashforwards – a solution to the mystery is offered, although the film could have presented this reveal and its buildup more satisfyingly in a film that was 20 minutes shorter.

As the bulldozers move in to flatten existing housing stock to make way for another set of skyscrapers, the community riots bringing in the cops and the TV news reporters. It also brings in the supercilious figure of Tang Yijie (Zhang Songwen), the local planning director, who attempts to soothe the mob with honeyed words through a megaphone about how he feels their pain – while also snapping instructions to the police to get tough with the rioters. The chaos ends in catastrophe.

Hitchcockian resolution ... Song Jia



Hitchcockian resolution … Song Jia as Lin

Flashbacks show that Tang is merely the puppet of gangster property mogul Jiang Zicheng (Qin Hao), who has known Tang since college in the late 80s, when he was the cool guy on campus and Tang was the ambitious nerd. Jiang has been playing a sinister long game: after graduating, he persuaded his devotedly obedient girlfriend, Lin Hui (Song Jia), to seduce and then marry the hapless, besotted Tang so he could one day have a tame politician in his pocket to sign off on planning permissions. The self-hate involved in this abusive relationship drives Lin mad – there are some extravagantly tasteless scenes in a mental hospital – and when smart young cop Yang Jiadong (Jing Boran) starts investigating the crooked Jiang, the mobster gets Lin to seduce him and release long-lens pictures to the press, so that he will be disgraced and fired. It is an entirely ridiculous plot turn which, like so much of the film, depends on us overhearing convenient explanation-commentary from the TV news. Meanwhile there is the matter of Lin’s daughter Nuo (Ma Sichun) and Jiang’s intimate business associate “Auntie Yun”, (Michelle Chen) with whom Lin has an absolutely ridiculous fight in the front seat of a speeding car – a fight that gets a bizarrely Hitchcockian resolution with a pair of scissors. It has to be the most risible “fight” scene of recent times.

The noir-melodrama is a genre concerned with danger, though paradoxically it may involve less risk for the director, not being so overtly political. There’s no reason why this genre cannot have satirical bite, however, and The Shadow Play is at one level denouncing the growth of cynicism, money worship and gangster capitalism in China. But it’s doing so with a wildly overblown, overcomplicated drama that dissipates tension because it is always doubling back on itself and not achieving much impact with each of its narrative shifts. Well, some great early scenes in the chaotic city itself.

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