Shadowplay (Malaysia, 2019)

At first glance, Shadowplay is conceptually shambolic. Co-written and directed by Tony Pietra Arjuna, it takes a stylistic approach to noir which pushes the neon-drenched aesthetic of recent films by Nicolas Winding Refn down a Lynchian rabbit hole. Shadowplay crosses between two waking lives as if the other is a daydream, tipping into the realm of the supernatural based on a loose fascination with voodoo and local folklore. It’s ambitious, does a lot of things, and a seems to fail in some aspects. But even taking those failings into account, the film somehow achieves great results.

The narrative of Shadowplay loosely alludes to the Joy Division song of the same name about a man who’s looking for someone in the darkness of the city. The film opens with the protagonist, Anton (Tony Eusoff), waking up from a daydream of his mother’s death at the hands of a mystical figure called The Gaunt Man (Radhi Khalid), to find himself trying to negotiate his fee with a client. Anton is an intern at a small private investigation firm run by Dan (Megat Sharizal). He meets a woman (Iman Corinne Adrienne) who never reveals her name and offers him a hefty sum to find her stepdaughter, Lamya (Juria Hartmans). Around his investigation, Anton fulfills a job finding a rare comic book that leads him to a choose-your-own-adventure book whose title is a phrase that resonates in his daydreams – “Adieu Sayangku”. As the narrative of the book crosses with that of his current case, Anton’s sense of reality becomes confused.

From this plot synopsis, one can immediately discern that Shadowplay is considerably influenced by western pulp fiction. It’s a mishmash of reappropriated tropes from noir, comic books, and detective novels. What makes the film stranger is its almost exclusive use of English dialogue which is written and delivered in a way which emulates pulp fiction to a point of cringe-worthiness.

Its approach to the supernatural is reminiscent of the HBO Asia series Halfworlds (2015-) which is an attempt to situate supernatural elements in a contemporary setting. Moreover, the world-building of  Shadowplay entails a strange mix of technological objects from different eras: a PC with CRT monitor coexists with smartphones and voodoo. Describing it in this way makes the film seem like a bad exercise in pastiche. Malaysia suddenly becomes all too familiar.

But what makes the film work is its observation of continuity. Accompanying the excessive use of neon lighting is the film’s heavy use of synthesizer-based music which plays continuously, scene by scene, as if it is one long track. The music creates a trance-like dizziness so the experience of watching Shadowplay sutures its daydream to your senses. The continuity here is not the observation of motion continuity as it is in conventional Hollywood aesthetics, but a sense of continuity between two levels of fiction: between Anton’s work and the book he’s reading, through the use of music. If there’s a film counterpart of the electronic music genre vaporwave then it would be Shadowplay which traps its new-age mood within a concrete city.

And it makes sense to compare Shadowplay to vaporwave with its attitude to reappropriation, remixing, and its fascination with what lies between dream and reality. The approach, however, makes it easy to imagine the film being polarizing. It is not at its best with its representation of genre filmmaking. Its use of detective tropes and staging of fight scenes are quite sloppy. And its use of English dialogue makes the actors look like bad American actors. But these lapses, when examined from the broader view of its stylistic ambition, add to the dream-like experience. It may be a stretch, but this incorporation of a seemingly amateurish approach to filmmaking enhances the dream structure and makes Shadowplay reminiscent of David Lynch’s works.

It is hard to point out who would enjoy this film. Surely, Shadowplay is not for hardcore genre fans. It does not seem suited for the art-house crowd, either. What the film does is absolutely not that new. In fact, it reappropriates a lot of old things. However, it is bold enough to lay down a great mix of sensual experience and push it to the extreme. Shadowplay may not be smooth, but it certainly doesn’t play safe. It is a film that places itself in danger by doing a lot of things. In short, it is a beautiful mess.

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