Historically speaking, the leading cause of political corruption has been questions of land use, so it almost goes without saying a successful real estate development company must be up to their eyeballs in graft in a society like Mainland China, where public corruption is so pervasive. That is certainly the case for Violet Gold Real Estate, an outfit whose meteoric success is particularly suspicious since its founder’s seed capitol came from Taiwan. As a Communist Party member, it was Tang Yijie’s job to know where the bodies were buried, until he became one of them in Lou Ye’s The Shadow Play, which screened as part of this year’s CineCina Film Festival—and is currently available for viewing on international American Airlines flights under its alternate title, Cloud in the Wind.
In the stunningly cinematic opening sequences, a riot breaks out in a Guangzhou slum, where Violet Gold is evicting longtime residents for the sake of a high-profile development scheme. Tang is dispatched to make peace and deal with the media, but instead, a shadowy figure pushes him off a roof, impaling him on a piece of rebar. Hot-shot police detective Yang Jiadong starts working the case, quickly concluding Tang’s not-so-grieving widow Lin Hui and Violet Gold’s founder Jiang Zicheng are most likely involved in the crime and with each other. He also suspects the unsolved disappearance of Lian Ah Yun, Jiang’s lieutenant and a close friend of Lin, is somehow related. Unfortunately, his investigation will be slightly sidetracked when the tabloid media catches him sleeping with Lin, one of his leading suspects.
Shadow Play is an epic noir that spans decades and indicts just about every level of Mainland society. It is easy to see why the state authorities kept the film on pins and needles waiting for the authorization for its international premiere. Frankly, it is rather surprising it was finally granted at the last minute, but not for reasons of quality. This is a flat-out masterwork from Lou—arguably even a masterpiece. It functions as a crime drama with brutal efficiency, but it also has the sweep and dramatic irony of classical tragedy.
Just about the entire cast deserves award consideration, starting first and foremost with Song Jia, who covers the terrain between femme fatale and deeply-wronged victim with compelling ferocity. Qin Hao similarly keeps the audience guessing with his intense yet ambiguously mysterious turn as Jiang. Completing the primary triangle, Zhang Songwen is absolutely loathsome yet acutely human as the “victim,” Tang.
Yet, Michelle Chen and Sandra Ma Sichun might leave the deepest impressions as Lian and Lin’s daughter, Nuo, who are both profoundly flawed and deeply vulnerable. Jing Boran is also solid as Yang, but he is somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the ensemble. Ironically, that also includes the uncredited Edison Chen, who is intriguingly only heard and never clearly seen playing Alex Lin, a Hong Kong private investigator, who was once associated with Yang’s father.
Shadow Play levels some unusually gutsy criticism at public corruption within the Party, the Chinese psychiatric health system, politically connected oligarch, the media, and the cops (both on the Mainland and in Hong Kong, where the action shifts). That makes it a bold film, but it is also excellent cinema. Think of it as a film on the level of Polanski’s Chinatown, which similarly depicted the corruption that swirls around government regulation of land use. Very highly recommended, The Shadow Play screened during the 2019 CineCina Film Festival and can be seen on international American Airlines flights.