Anton Shaw (Tony Eusoff) is an unlicensed private detective working under tutelage of his boss Dan Humsey (Megat Sharizal) who chides him for making careless decisions — mainly trusting people and things too much in their profession. So he’s still not happy when Anton accepts an astoundingly lucrative job to find missing college student Lamya Sheridan (Juria Hartmans) by her estranged wealthy foreign mother. The case is further complicated by several factors: the fact she seemed to have no real friends or close connections; the fact that people who did have some connection to her life didn’t seem to have very good ones; and worst of all the recurring visions of the nightmarish (perhaps literally so), vaguely demonic “Hidden Ones” including one known only as The Gaunt Man (Radhi Khalid). Then there’s ex-cop turned loner Shotgun Sheldon (Jay Sheldon), who may or may not be involved in the case and may or may not even be alive….
So who might know best of Lamya’s whereabouts? Her art professor? Her dancer former roommate? Their shared past dance teacher? Her adoptive mother? While Anton has to deal with and decipher a not-too-unusual gallery of noir suspects such as angry jealous/lecherous men from the missing woman’s life and dubiously seductive femme fatales, perhaps the biggest obstacle to unlocking the mystery is his own mind, as Lamya’s disappearance seems to have an odd parallel to his own murky childhood experience. So Anton sees an increasingly indelible link between finding out about Lamya and his own mental state, meaning part of the key to the mystery may lie in his subconscious (if he’s not simply going crazy).
One thing “Shadowplay” does quite effectively for an indie especially, is create a distinct atmosphere. In its basic conception, “Shadowplay” is an interesting pastiche of several decades and eras of material across a few different mediums. The storytelling style is indebted to film noir of the 1940s, while the recurring neon lights and the finely complimenting neo-synth-pop from Stellar Dreams playing throughout bring a strong 80s vibe, and a key plot motif even got its inspiration from “Choose Your Own Adventure” books started in the 70s (with peak popularity in the 80s.) And then there’s the obvious influence from David Lynch epitomized in Twin Peaks and “Mulholland Drive” in “Shadowplay’s” cryptic and reflective dialogue driving the mystery that gravitates it more towards the 90s and early 00s.
It’s not a generic pastiche however, as the film (particularly Praveen Kumar as director of photography) does right in setting one of the world’s most underrated major cities as a very visible wider backdrop. And while many of the indoor scenes are often stationary (in houses, apartments, clubs etc.) their surroundings are kept consistently nice to look at whether with glowing electric reds and greens, art pieces, vegetation or dancers freezing in pose. Also, although about 90% of the movie’s dialogue is in English, there are references and nods to Malaysian culture, language and geography peppered about (even evident in the film’s title being a play on the country’s ancient shadow puppet theatre traditions with a more here-and-now connotation of the characters’ fates not being in their own hands.)
While made to be a neo-noir and despite the very modern neon-tinged aesthetic, some aspects of the film seem a little bit too old-fashioned beyond atmosphere or tribute, like some of the detective’s voiceovers and bits of “diabolical” laughter. But at the same time, some pretty extreme splatter violence to emerge later shares uneasy space with the otherwise understated and throwback atmosphere. It’s true that such casual/sudden violence quotients are becoming increasingly common across pretty much all the major Southeast Asian island nations’ film industries for some reason, but its more out of place here than in those over-the-top martial arts and horror movies.
The dialogue can be a mixed bag, with some like the missing girl’s voiceovers (from her dairy) effectively forlorn and lending well to the atmosphere and mystery, some right next to it being rather arid and some surprisingly rustic — if you ever wondered how to exclaim “mother’s c—t!” in Malay, this is the place to check. And regardless, most of it of every level is delivered with heart.
Other aspects perhaps have some kind of special resonance to Malays that’s lost on the rest of us (particularly in terms of The Hidden Ones’ look, style and mannerisms). But a couple of things that are clear may well have been better off not so much so, such as giving a villain crude (even if light or otherworldly) allusions to homo-erotic necrophilia. They were already sufficiently creepy without them.
But being his first major full-length solo film, director Tony Pietra Arjuna couldn’t be expected to hit all the right notes. Faults aside, overall “Shadowplay” is a quaint genre and period mash-up in an unusual setting (for an international film) with quite economical utilization of its visual resources.
Side note: Arjuna seems to have a fascination with the Choose Your Own Adventure series and/or its concepts, as he also directed one segment of the 2015 anthology film “Train Station” more heavily themed around the idea.
“There’s no sense of community here and I doubt there ever will [be]. Not at home. Not here. Not anywhere.”