A tepid sense of familiarity sets in while watching Glenn Chan’s feature debut Shadows. From its cold-open introductory murder to the perfunctory psychiatrist on a lecture circuit scene, everything feels a little too familiar here, even when contextualized within its psychological thriller genre which rests, no doubt, on tried and true staples of unreliable narrators and twist reveals. Like the referential mishmash of the recent Fear Street films, Shadows starts to feel like an imitation of an imitation (albeit one without the self-aware intentionality), and while it may be competently shot, paced, and acted, its Hannibal-style mind games and dated preoccupations with mental illness are bereft of ingenuity or freshness, resembling a lost network pilot from around the time Bryan Fuller’s television series was still on the air rather than a robust feature film in its own right.
After bearing witness to the aftermath of a grizzly murder, we are introduced to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Tsui Hiu Ching (Stephy Tang) as she treats a patient with a stylishly expressive array of psychic powers. Through slick slow-mo transitions accentuated by Oliver Lau’s cinematography, we are whisked away into her patient’s subconscious to recreate fragments of the past which play like a mix of the surreal dream psychiatry of The Cell and the Sherlockian crime scene reenactments of Hannibal. This opening bit with its visual pyrotechnics, at once technically competent yet thoroughly uninspired, hints at a recurring problem with the film. Take, for example, the subsequent introduction of Officer Ho (Philip Keung), a well-meaning if somewhat brash detective who plays by his own set of rules, or the apparently malevolent Dr. Yan Chung Kwong (Tese Kwan Ho) with his Hannibal-esque poise and charm. The solid performances from the supporting cast can only take these two-dimensional archetypes so far.
It doesn’t help that the remainder of the film is a minefield of thriller clichés ranging from suspicious revelations about Tsui’s past, the emergence of mutilated corpse tableaus, as well as Yan’s Hobbesian monologuing which is bluntly and obviously juxtaposed with Tsui’s faith in the goodness of humanity. None of these tired script elements are intrinsically off-putting, but the accumulation of tropes spread over the film’s runtime starts to exhaust by its end. The somewhat bumpy production history can help explain this lack of a distinct vision. An interview with film news outlet Sinema reveals that Chan, with his multifaceted background in Singaporean television, was slated to serve as DP on the film when the original director dropped out. Further complicating matters, the story’s setting was changed from Singapore to Hong Kong, not just pulling away cultural specificity but also creating a language and cultural barrier between Chan, who describes his Cantonese as limited, and the Hong Kong-based film crew. The extent to which these roadblocks hinder the end result is unclear, but ultimately what’s left is a by-the-numbers potboiler that can hold your attention for 90 minutes, but lacks the sense of personality, urgency, or surprise of its myriad influences.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.