At this point the best advice I can give you, the prospective viewer of a Lou Ye movie, is this: don’t see it in a theatre, and if you must, sit as far away from the screen as possible. Possibly contemporary cinema’s most extreme abuser of the close-up, shallow-focus, quick-cutting shaky-cam, Lou’s movies are nigh unwatchable under what should be ideal viewing conditions (that is, about a half dozen or so rows back from the screen, depending on auditorium shape and size). The incoherent swirl of blurs and occasional images are nauseating and headache-inducing at that distance. Never have I so longed for the ability to speak Chinese as I did watching The Shadow Play here at VIFF, wishing desperately to be able to just close my eyes and simply listen to the movie.
It’s a shame, because in most other respects, Lou is a fine filmmaker, deftly smuggling social critique within otherwise popular genre plots. The Shadow Play is a terrific example of this, with an outstanding opening sequence chronicling the street-by-street buildup of a riot in protest of developers who plan to bulldoze a dilapidated, but occupied, neighborhood, culminating in a brutal police crackdown. That it’s set in 2012 makes it no less resonant to events in Hong Kong (and beyond) that are occurring as I type. But The Shadow Play isn’t really a film about resistance to urban “renewal” (an evil anywhere in the world, as omnipresent as capitalism itself), so much as it uses the fact of corruption (illicit links between government and business and law enforcement and the family) as set dressing for a lurid and not especially interesting noir story about a cop (Jing Boran, star of Monster Hunt and Us and Them) having a very hard time trying to solve a not-very-difficult case.
Hyperactively cutting back and forth across twenty years of history in the life of a developer, a government official (who will be killed in the aftermath of the riot), and the woman they love, along with their daughter (whose daughter? it’s a mystery!) and a bar girl from Taiwan who became the developer’s top assistant several years before the 2012 riot/murder (where’d she go? another mystery!), Lou distracts from the weakness of his scenario by jumbling continuity, not exactly following any kind of logical or emotional throughline, but rather simply trying to extend the suspense, such as it is, for as long as he can.
Set piece follows set piece, with what looks like could be some fine acting (especially by the three women, Ma Sichun (from Soul Mate), playing the daughter, Song Jia (Shock Wave) as the mother, and Michelle Chen (Badges of Fury) as the assistant), except we can’t actually see any of it because most of every frame is blurred out and cut to pieces. Ultimately the mysteries prove to have solutions both obvious and not especially sensical, but that would all matter a lot less if the rest of the movie held up. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging the existence of corruption in a society and actually making a movie about it. It’s undeniable that Lou has been a leading figure of resistance against the PRC’s various censorship systems, suffering a filmmaking ban after Suzhou River (his best film), a five year distribution ban after Summer Palace, and waiting two years after shooting wrapped in 2016 to see The Shadow Play get released. But, in the same way Lou used Tiananmen Square as a backdrop for an uninteresting and poorly shot romantic melodrama in Summer Palace, so the politics of The Shadow Play, admirable though they are, can’t obscure the film’s deficiencies as cinema.
It’s not as if we haven’t seen plenty of recent films pull this same trick, of sneaking anti-PRC themes into a generic story. Ash is Purest White and Mountains May Depart track the same things: the corrosive effects of corruption and capitalism and their effects on the family over time. Mountains especially, with its love triangle and estranged child, especially seems relevant, but how much more human is Jia’s movie than Lou’s? Xin Yukun’s Wrath of Silence is a rock-solid genre film that attacks corruption with all the subtlety of a mute coal miner bashing in the face of a corporate crook. Just here at VIFF, we have Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, a not-so-subtle jab at the parallels and interconnections between criminals, law enforcement, and capital, told within a mostly generic noir plot, but with a visual acuity and precision that seems anathema to Lou. I guess here’s where I should say that of course Lou has adopted his style for reasons, he’s been doing it for years and years and shows no signs of stopping. I’m sure his reasons are sound, and that compelling arguments can be made in favor of his cutting and camera work. He isn’t incompetent, he’s just made an aesthetic choice that I find, and perhaps the fault merely lies with my middle-aged physiology, fucking unwatchable.