Shadows (殘影空間, Glenn Chan, 2020)

Are humans innately good or innately evil, and when we do good do we do it altruistically or to make ourselves feel better? These are all questions which occur to an idealistic yet conflicted forensic psychiatrist in Glenn Chan’s twisty psycho-noir, Shadows (殘影空間). Burdened both by a medical condition which apparently conveys a kind of superpower and by her own unresolved trauma, Ching (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) wants to believe that people are at heart good but is herself caught in a complex web of manipulations in which even her well-meaning interventions may have unintended consequences. 

Ching’s big case is that of a 34-year-old social worker, Chu, who suddenly bludgeoned his entire family, three generations of women, to death with one of his many trophies which had a small heart on its top before calling the police and jumping over his balcony. As he only lived on the second floor, Chu survived but appears remarkably nonchalant about his crime. Police officer Ho (Philip Keung Ho-man) brings in Ching to figure out if Chu was really in a state of mental distress when he committed the murders, or if his certainly survivable suicide attempt is part of a smokescreen to help him evade justice. Possibly caused by a brain tumour, Ching’s special power is the ability to insert herself into her patients’ traumatic memories which is where she hears Chu recall a mantra that all humans are selfish and only think of themselves. This statement is meant not as censure but affirmation, Ching recalling a similar sentiment uttered by a rival psychologist, Yan (Tse Kwan-Ho), whom Chu had also been seeing, to the effect that mental imbalance lies in an inability to embrace one’s shadow self including “negative” impulses such egotism. 

In truth, the investigation into Chu’s case soon recedes into the background more or less forgotten as Ching embarks on an ideological battle with Yan who, we are told, has recently returned from many years living in the individualistic West and is peddling a kind of hyper individualist will to power which she regards as abetting his patients, a surprising number of whom go on to commit violent crime. Yan argues that humans are born evil and that the individual has the right to be selfish, abandoning conventional morality to pursue their own desires including those which necessarily harm others. Ching believes she’s doing the opposite, yet her attempt to help a victim of domestic violence by convincing her that she has the right and power to escape her abusive familial environment eventually places her in the same position as Yan. 

Given her own traumatic history, she may have to consider there’s something in Yan’s assertion that her intentions are also “selfish” in that she helps others in order to help herself feel better. When her investigation leads her, somewhat improbably, towards a serial killer with a Silence of the Lambs-esque taste for “beautiful” corpse tableaux she exposes him doing something much the same, claiming that he’s “saving” elderly people from the pain and suffering of old age but in reality trying to make himself feel better for failing to prevent the suffering of someone he loved while selfishly avoiding the pain of losing them. 

Determined to prove Yan is a serial killer by proxy manipulating his patients by encouraging them to embrace their darkest desires, Ching fails to see the degree to which she is also being manipulated, possibly for much longer than she might have realised. Yan’s patients refuse their responsibility towards others, rejecting the consequences of their actions in insisting that everyone makes their own choices. His hyper individualist philosophy might be seen as a stand-in for the increasingly selfish impulses of a previously collectivist society, a shift away from conventional morality towards the primacy of the self, yet it also darkly suggests that altruism is also cynical and born either of guilt or the selfish desire for reciprocity. In the end the verdict is in a sense left to a legitimate authority, Ho asked to decide if he thinks Yan is a crazed libertarian mad scientist, or if Ching is merely a traumatised and deluded woman pursuing some kind of personal vendetta. Featuring fantastic production design and stand out performances from Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, Shadows has no easy answers for the nature of the human soul but nevertheless casts its various protagonists on a noirish journey through the traumatic past guided only by duplicitous voices and ambivalent authority. 


Shadows screens at the BFI Southbank on 25th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)