REVIEW: Shadows (2020)

When its theatrical release was delayed by more than a year, Glenn Chan’s bleakly violent thriller Shadows was left making its way around what few film festivals remained open during the pandemic. It is a flawed work, but still boasts enough in terms of style and technique to find an appreciative audience.

Tsui Hiu-ching (Stephy Tang) is a therapist working in Hong Kong. She hides an uncanny power: the ability to enter the minds of her patients and see their traumatic memories as if she had actually been there. When a social worker murders his entire family and attempts to commit suicide, Tsui collaborates with a police detective (Philip Keung) to discover his motive. Their investigation leads to a psychiatrist (Tse Kwan-ho) who may be influencing his clients to commit violent crimes.

Tang delivers one of her strongest performances to date in Shadows, embracing a much darker tone than has been typical for her career to date. There is an insidious veneer over the film; Ching’s psychic journeys inside her patients’ minds have a grimy and miserable aesthetic to them, while the character’s own journey becomes more desperate and traumatic as it goes. Interestingly Ching’s unusual powers do not lead to more supernatural goings-on; this is a grim thriller in the vein of Hollywood works like Seven (1995) and Saw (2004), and any unearthly elements exist to service a more grounded and visceral series of events.

Keung is hardly stretched by comparison, playing a cynical police detective named Fat whose investigation Ching joins as a consultant. He provides some moments of dry levity, and is accompanied by a cute young daughter that adds a little backstory, but all in all is playing a plot cypher more than a three-dimensional character. Thankfully, Keung’s solid screen presence and natural charisma do help to paper over the cracks and entertain the audience. Tse Kwan-ho is in strong form as Dr Yan Chung-kwong, the psychiatrist who falls under suspicion of abetting the criminals – each of whom is a former patient. Tse gives the character a wonderful and slippery sense of arrogance.

Shadows marks the feature directorial debut of Chan, a veteran director of Singaporean television drama. His collaboration with director of photography Oliver Lau gives the film a strong and varied visual texture between its dreamlike imaginary scenes and its real world equivalents. Stylistically, Shadows is bold and confident without being overly abstract or self-conscious; likely the result of Chan’s long television career giving him a maturity many first-time filmmakers lack. I am keen to see where his career progresses from here; his work on Shadows should guarantee a future in the Hong Kong film industry if he wants it.

While the performances work well and the film’s aesthetic is impressive, it never quite feels in harmony with its screenplay. Individual scenes have plenty of merit, and the various crimes play out in a gripping and tense fashion, but on a ‘nuts-and-bolts’ level it all feels more than a little unsteady. Motivations feel oddly weak across the board. By the time the film reaches its oddly truncated final scene, it all feels less than the sum of its parts. Shadows is certainly enjoyable, but its only a creative success to a certain extent. Like a house built on weak foundations, it’s a film that is attractive to look at, and fun to explore. But linger too long and it is liable to collapse around you.

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