I love wuxia movies — unlike fantasy settings in other cinemas, Hollywood for example, it has been a prominent mainstay of Chinese cinema for decades. For the uninitiated, think back to Crouching Tiger or 90s Hong Kong: period Chinese setting, murky political intrigues, heroic figures battling for a higher cause… or perhaps just for supremacy. There’s something about these worlds that draws you in, whether it’s via the lyricism and allegory of King Hu’s films, or the labyrinthine intrigue and unhinged pyrotechnics of Chor Yuen’s pictures for Shaw Brothers. I love all of them, and it’s always nice to see Chinese filmmakers going back to the well for more.
This picture, Lady Detective Shadow, comes from producer Bey Logan (well known to HK film fandom for many years) after he did similar duty on the somewhat disappointing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, which fizzled out despite its cast and Yuen Woo-ping behind the camera. It’s the debut picture from director Si Shubin.
After an animated introduction which introduces us to the milieu of the story — a complex political landscape dominated by scheming eunuchs and populated by the heroes of jianghu, the martial arts world — we’re thrown right into it, as a mysterious lady in a large-brimmed hat arrests three miscreants for theft and murder. She is Sima Feiyan, and despite no longer being a renowned Royal Constable in the service of the court she’s still fighting for justice. She has a plucky sidekick who assists her and a nose for detective work, something that comes into its own when they find themselves in a remote border town full of other mysterious strangers and a suspiciously missing government official.
The story is pretty well-trodden ground, full of scenes we’ve seen before: the inn in the middle of nowhere full of geared-up fighters from out of town, the local magistrate waiting for a visit from the court, the gravity-defying moonlit rooftop pursuits. And unlike many contemporary entries in the genre, this film’s budget shows: the action sequences are choppy and close-up, which doesn’t deliver on the promised prowess of the characters, and the cinematography and art direction have a similarly shoestring feel at times. There were a few moments where I did wonder whether the picture had been cut down from (or made for) a television series, particularly given its disjointed, exposition-heavy first act.
Once we’re past all the backstory and we have a bit of time to focus on the characters, things improve, and I did enjoy the central performance from Shang Rong. It’s fun to see a heroine playing the role of detective-slash-vigilante, and there is clearly a bit of a nod to Brigitte Lin and Cheng Pei-pei’s roles in decades past in Sima Feiyan.
Lady Detective Shadow isn’t a return to the the heady days (and coloured gels) of the Shaws wuxia pictures, and it isn’t quite kinetic enough to match the Hong Kong wire-fu of the early 90s. If you’re someone who loves the genre, though, it’s still worth a look.