There’s a lot of movie in this movie. A film noir that plays something like Won Kar Wai directing the Bourne Trilogy, The Shadow Play (a.k.a. Cloud in the Wind) takes in everything from crooked businessmen to shady housing developments to secret sex scandals to avenging sons under its ambitious grasp, weaving an epic trail of crime in its wake. Spanning over twenty-five years and moving between Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Taipei, The Shadow Play liberates film noir from its moody trappings, paying homage to both Hong Kong action and arthouse cinema. There is a whole TV series worth of material here, yet somehow director Von Ye Lou has condensed it all into a breathless, thrilling work of cinema.
It starts with a riot in the city of Guangzhou, as the local residents protest against a controversial demolition. The construction committee director tries to calm the residents down, explaining that progress is necessary for the good of all citizens. Later that night, he is found dead — cruelly impaled on the spike of his own company’s neon sign. Was he pushed? Detective Yang (Jing Boran) is allocated to the case. He has a touch of Tony Leung about him, with his sad eyes and soft spot for delicate women. He quickly uncovers a complex web of corruption spiraling all the way to the top, resulting in a barnstorming search for the mystery killer.
The narrative goes forwards and backwards in an almost simultaneous fashion, using Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street-inspired choices to condense years into the space of minutes. We easily see how these ruthless, post-reform criminals get rich quickly, how they spend their wealth, and why Yang is so committed to see them brought to justice. As the editing has such a great Scorsese-ian sense of propulsion, constantly revealing new things before we’ve had a chance to process the last revelation, one cannot tell if the film is just getting started, or close to its conclusion. This is both the best thing about The Shadow Play and one of its main drawbacks. Personally, I could’ve done with an extra hour, really letting us get into the lives of these characters, yet perhaps then the magic spell of the first forty minutes or so would’ve been lost.
Like in a Scorsese movie, desire itself is seen as a form of corruption, taking otherwise healthy people and reducing them to creatures of greed. Whether it’s money, sex, or power, everyone in The Shadow Play‘s world can’t help themselves from giving into their basest nature. Both male and female protagonists are given the same space for self-expression, revealing that even in a patriarchal world, women aren’t immune to violent and greedy passions. The acting is tremendous across the slate, imbuing even the most melodramatic of scenes — and there are plenty — with real emotion.
The camerawork is some of the best in contemporary crime cinema, recalling The Gangs of Wasseypur and City of God in its breathless use of movement. Using a combination of drone and helicopter shots, shaky cam, tracking shots, and expressive close-ups — and all the while furiously racking focus — The Shadow Play is a complete sensory overload. Only the action sequences — impressive impressionistic flare-ups of light and movement — could have done with more stabilization.
Additionally, the penchant for thoroughly illuminating the past has its drawbacks, including a few pointless flashbacks that only show us things that we already knew. Part of the charm of film noir is filling in the gaps yourself, something the final third of The Shadow Play makes too literal. Nonetheless, its vaulting ambition, woozy and seductive editing, and gorgeous Jóhann Jóhannsson score propel this firmly into the territory of classics like The Killer and Infernal Affairs, all the while maintaining the dreaminess of Bi Gan and the social awareness of Jia Zhangke. A phenomenal achievement despite its structural flaws.