Streaming Releases: Shadowplay (2019) - Reviewed

Malaysia isn’t the first place in which one might expect a neo-noir film to be set, but be prepared to subvert all expectations with Shadowplay.  Filmmaker Tony Pietra Arjuna guides us through an ominous mystery with Kuala Lumpur as its backdrop, and the seedy, neon landscape he creates is engrossing and eye-catching enough to make even Nicolas Winding Refn turn his head.

Shadowplay has all of the elements of a traditional noir film, but they are presented in the ever-popular '80s aesthetic, complete with a killer synthwave soundtrack to seal the deal.  Anton Shaw (Tony Eusoff) is a troubled private eye that is hired to find missing college student Lamya Shahruddin (Juria Hartmans).  His investigation takes him down a dark and sometimes surreal path, encountering his fair share of femme fatales and almost cartoonishly evil antagonists, which ultimately causes a traumatic childhood memory to resurface.  He begins to feel an inherent connection with Lamya as his sanity becomes increasingly questionable: he starts to rely on a Choose Your Own Adventure book to make some of his choices, blurring the lines of reality and forcing the audience to second-guess the reliability of our protagonist. 

How visually pleasing this film is cannot be emphasized enough.  The cinematography is highly stylized, boasting ultra-saturated colors engulfing nearly every scene, driving home the dreamy elements of the film.  Many of the shot compositions are masterfully crafted:  there are some long shots of the city and a few intimate nightclub scenes that practically belong in an art gallery.  Unfortunately, other aspects of Shadowplay take it down a notch.  The audio, for example, is not consistently mixed, causing some dialogue (particularly a few voiceovers) to feel out of place, removing the viewer from the moment.  It is clear that this film prioritized its visuals and everything else played second fiddle, but thankfully it looks so nice that one can be somewhat forgiving.

The biggest issue arises anytime Shadowplay attempts to diverge us from reality.  There are many scenes that play out in Anton’s mind, often focusing on his childhood, and some of the editing choices made throughout the film render these scenes progressively harder to follow.  The more the film decides to focus on Anton’s wavering mental state, the more it frustrates.  By the time the third act unfolds, the cutting gets messy, trying to unite a variety of different plot points in a manner that simply doesn’t work.  While some of this culmination was perhaps consciously ambiguous, it is an unsatisfying way to wrap a film that initially feels so cohesive.  

For anyone that basks in hot pink and blue color palettes, synthy sounds, and sinister villains, Shadowplay is a must-watch.  Outside of that, it might leave some audiences scratching their heads.  Nevertheless, it is an incredibly ambitious piece with passion that fuels it from start to finish.  The film might not be perfect, but it looks great doing it, and has enough earnestness to make it work.

Shadowplay is now available for rent on Amazon Prime. 

--Andrea Riley