Shadow (影, Zhang Yimou, 2018)

Shadow poster 1Zhang Yimou waxes Shakespearean in a tale of palace intrigue and a world out of balance in his latest return to the age of wuxia, Shadow (影, Yǐng). Drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings, Zhang’s monochromatic world has a chilling beauty even in its intense layers of oppression which make prisoners of king and subjects alike. Like the yin yang diagram on which the climatic battle takes place, Shadow is a tale of dualities and oppositions as its hollowed out hero begins to wonder who exactly he might be without the mirror.

Long ago in feudal China, the Kingdom of Pei has been living in peace thanks to an “alliance” with the Yang who are technically occupying the former Pei city of Jing. Many in the Kingdom of Pei are unhappy with this arrangement, regarding the loss of Jing as a humiliation and the king’s refusal to retake it more cowardice than pragmatism. Despite the king’s instruction that the truce must be maintained and war avoided at all costs, his trusted commander has undertaken a secret meeting with Yang in which he has agreed to a personal duel for the honour of Pei. The king is very unhappy. A lesser man might have lost his head, but the king needs his commander. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the commander is not all he seems. Nobleman Yu (Deng Chao) was badly injured during a previous fight with Yang and has retreated to the catacombs while his double, Jing (also Deng Chao), has been playing his part in court.

Jing, “saved” from poverty as a young child brought to the palace as a double for Yu, is grateful and loyal. He respects his masters and has trained hard to learn the skills needed to pass as a nobleman and more particularly as Yu. As such he has no “identity”. Even his name was given to him by his master and is simply that of the town where he was found which happens to be the disputed city itself. Jing does everything right – his instincts are good, he is clever and quick-witted with a talent for intrigue, all of which makes him both a danger and a shield for Yu. Yu, meanwhile, trapped in the same underground cell which used to house Jing, has become warped and embittered. Nursing a mortal wound, he plots and schemes against the king, scuttling goblin-like as he rails against his fate.

Yu promises Jing a release from his mental imprisonment if he agrees to take part in the duel with Yang. Jing knows that Yu’s promise is hollow and that he is not intended to survive, but submits himself to his fate anyway. He does this, partly, in hope but also because of his longstanding but unspeakable love for Madam (Sun Li) – Yu’s wife, who is one of the few people ever to express pity for his miserable circumstances. As the film opens, Madam and the king’s sister are reading proverbs together including one which insists that men are meant to rule. The king, however, is weak – he is effete and prefers the art of the brush to that of the sword, while his sister is “wild” – a bold and impetuous young woman seemingly more suited to the throne than her foppish brother.

As if to complete the theme, it’s Madam who eventually reveals the technique to beat Yang to her increasingly crazed husband. In order to defeat his hyper masculine enemy who fights with a giant sabre, Yu resolves to fight like a girl armed with one of Pei’s iconic parasols reconfigured in sharpened iron. Only by creating balance can they hope to win, meeting the weight of Yang’s blunt force with a lightness of touch and feminine elegance. 

The world of Shadow is one defined by its dualities – male/female, lowborn and high, betrayal and loyalty, arrogance and supplication. Jing’s existence is defined by that of the “true” commander – a shadow cannot exist without a form to cast it, or so it had always been thought. Offered the possibility of escape, Jing’s original identity begins to resurface. Yet his victory over his “other self” is also a defeat which infects him with the dubious moralities of the court, allowing him to become more than himself alone and leaving the world once again dangerously unbalanced. As the opening narration told us, however, it is not Jing, or Yu, or the king who hold the fate of Pei in their hands but Madam whose final decision will dictate the course of history. Set in a world of oppressive greys broken only by the driving rain and shocking redness of blood, Shadow may not return Zhang to the balletic heights of the poetic Hero, but does its best to add Shakespearean grandeur to its tragic tale of fractured identities and conflicting desires.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Liquidator (心理罪:城市之光, Xu Jizhou, 2017)

The Liquidator posterGiven a strangely ‘80s nonsensical two word title, Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator (心理罪:城市之光, Xīnlǐ Zuì: Chéngshì Zhī Guāng) is a retro throwback to the lurid macho pulp which has largely faded from the crime procedural since its ‘90s heyday. Adapted from a novel by Lei Mi, the film follows last year’s Guilty of Mind as the second in the Fang Mu series only this time the eccentric profiler is played by marquee star Deng Chao rather than Guilty Mind’s Li Yifeng or Chen Ruo Xuan who starred in the Fang Mu TV drama, Evil Minds. A pulpy battle of wits between a crazed vigilante and a world weary cop, The Liquidator is already treading on some overly familiar territory but its main target is the rule of law apparently under threat of mob justice now that China too has entered the social media age.

Fang Mu (Deng Chao) is no longer a police officer after becoming the prime suspect in the disappearance of a man who escaped justice through judicial corruption, but he’s pulled back into the law enforcement fold when young policewoman Mi Nan (Cecilia Liu) is dispatched to get his profiling opinion on a difficult murder case. Calling himself “The Light of the City”, a vigilante killer is already amassing a collection of dedicated online followers thanks to his choice of targets which, to put it bluntly, are not law breakers just terrible people that most would like to get revenge on for one reason or another.

Originally reluctant, Fang Mu is soon hooked on the case only to realise that the crime scenes are being created entirely for his benefit – the killer is attempting to pull him into a battle of wits and taking innocent lives to do it. As it transpires the killer’s name, Light of the City, is inspired by something Fang Mu said in his graduation speech to the effect that the police are the light that shines in the darkness. The killer thinks the law doesn’t go far enough – his targets are bullying teachers, impious sons, and greedy lawyers, the immoral rather than the criminal. He exposes their transgressions online and then allows “netizens” to have their say. Netizens, as they have often been in the “real” world, are not a particularly understanding bunch and are firmly behind the “entertainment” the killer is providing, even down to the decision to live stream a murder.

Fang Mu’s defining trait is his liminal status as a law enforcement officer often pulled towards the dark side – hence why many of his colleagues think it’s perfectly possible that he’s guilty of the crime that got him kicked off the force. The vigilante’s “plan” is to pull him over the line by forcing Fang Mu to execute The City of Light and thereby become the thing he most fears. The Liquidator posits that a robust judicial system free from interference from both government and people is a prerequisite of a well functioning society and the police must be the shining beacons of these laws – if not even law enforcement obeys the law, then all is lost.

What transpires is a battle of minds between the brainy Fang Mu and the psychotic killer, but it’s also a battle for the soul of “society” which ought to place compassion and rationality over the sensationalism of trial by media and arbitrary mob justice. The killer works out his frustrations by proxy through attacking those who committed the same “crimes” which have led to their feelings of frustration and humiliation – chief among them being Fang Mu who has, apparently, offended solely in his continued excellence, but the killer’s personal vengeance is harsh and unforgiving, handing down a death sentence simply for unpleasant or anti-social behaviour.

Beginning in a promising vein, Xu nevertheless introduces his dedicated female cop only to sideline her in favour of Fang Mu before turning her into a mild love interest, potential victim, and sometime comic relief. Filled with macho histrionics (including, at one point, a gun fired in the air followed by a manly wail of grief), The Liquidator is an old fashioned action drama filtered through pulp noir and ‘90s horror with its grimy walls and dingy basements, but it straddles a fine line between ridiculous slasher serial killer thriller and serious cerebral procedural, landing somewhere around heroic bloodshed without the bromance. Ridiculous and melodramatic, Xu’s debut feature boasts excellent production design and innovative photography, but its slick aesthetic cannot overcome the more outlandish elements of the otherwise generic script.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia

Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

The Mermaid (美人鱼, Stephen Chow, 2016)

MermaidStephen Chow unexpectedly became a mini phenomenon with that rarest of beasts – a foreign language comedy that proved a mainstream crossover hit, in the form of the double punch that was Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. However, his once ascendant star has been in retrograde ever since when it comes to screens outside of Asia. The surprise worldwide theatrical release of this latest film, The Mermaid (美人鱼, Mei Ren Yu), might be about to change all that.

Loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, Chow paints a world of consumerism in overdrive as heartless capitalists fall over themselves to destroy the beauty of the natural world to buy even more flashy status symbols even though they only make them even more miserable. After opening with some newsreel footage of mass deforestation and a bloody dolphin massacre, Chow shows us the natural world exploited in a different way as a group of visitors visit an “exotic animal show” which includes such wonders as a live tiger (actually a pet dog with stripes pained on its fur), a “Batman” (with fried chicken for ears), and, crucially a “Mermaid” (a fried fish with a doll’s head on the top).

We’re then introduced to rich playboy businessman Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) who lives life large in a giant western style estate surrounded by gold digging dollybirds. He’s bought some “surprisingly well priced land” to use in a reclamation project, only the problem is it’s technically a nature reserve. His underlings have come up with a scheme to frighten away the wildlife with sonar devices so they can destroy the area of outstanding natural beauty in peace. However, they didn’t know about the colony of Merpeople hiding out there who have a serious problem with Liu and have dispatched one of their number, Shan (Jelly Lin), to assassinate him!

Predictably, the assassination plot does not all go to plan with often hilarious results. Like Chow’s other movies, the main spine of the narrative is a romantic comedy in which a foolish and arrogant man is made to realise his own weaknesses through finally noticing a woman he previously had no interest in. This time Shan turns up looking like a crazy lady with her bizarre makeup and fake mermaid outfit which gets her instantly thrown out of Liu’s place though she does succeed in giving him her phone number. Usually, Liu isn’t the type to call back but he gets goaded into it by mistake and then his henchman actually bring Shan to his office where she fails at assassinating him first with poison and then with sea urchins. By this time the course is set as the pair bond during their macabre meet-cute with Liu becoming attracted to Shan’s otherworldliness and she to the goodness that might be buried inside him.

Liu, it seems, experienced extreme poverty in his childhood and so now cares only about making money. Or says he does, his depressing solo karaoke dances to a hit pop song with the chorus “no one understands my loneliness” might tell a different story. Being super rich is actually kind of boring and everyone he meets only cares about his money so meeting Shan (who is predominantly interested in killing him) proves refreshing. Nevertheless, money also becomes an anchor dragging you down, even if Liu starts to come over to the Merpeople’s point of view (particularly after testing out those sonar devices on his own ears) his associates aren’t likely to agree.

It all goes a bit dark towards the end – wildlife massacres and kidnappings for “scientific research” which seems to include things like vivisection and live experimentation not to mention the intentional eradication of the entire living environment of these hitherto hidden creatures all the while preaching about scientific progress and a desire for understanding. Chow is many things but subtle has never been one of them so he lays his environmental message on with a trowel but the rest of the movie is so big anyway that he gets away with it (and in style).

Light and bright and colourful, The Mermaid is another characteristically madcap effort from Chow who packs in all the absurdist humour one could wish for plus a decent dose of sight gags and good old fashioned slapstick. It has to be said that the quality of the CGI (of which there is an awful lot in the film) is, on the whole, woeful, though somehow this just ends up adding to its charms as another facet of its self effacing wackiness. A hilarious return to form from Chow who has been away for far too long, The Mermaid looks set to continue its enormous box office success by becoming one of the director’s most fondly remembered efforts.


The Mermaid is currently in UK cinemas but the distributors have gone down the Bollywood route of chasing the diaspora audience only (as RogerEbert.com discovered during the US release) and not engaging with the regular film press in any way, shape, or form. Therefore there has been almost no coverage of the cinema screenings in the non-Chinese media. Here’s a list of the surprisingly high number of UK cinemas screening the film courtesy of my friends at Eastern Kicks so check it out because it very likely could be playing at a cinema near you!