Described by writer/director Tony Pietra Arjuna as a “love letter to David Lynch,” 2019 Malaysian indie neo-noir thriller Shadowplay (now available to stream on Amazon and Vimeo — there’s probably a DVD and/or Blu-ray iteration to be found, as well, although I couldn’t comment on the specifics of such) certainly owes a stylistic debt to that eclectic auteur‘s work, particularly Mulholland Drive, but you’re likely to catch a fairly strong whiff of Gaspar Noe, Don Coscarelli, and even Orson Welles as the surreal, nearly free-associative narrative plays out herein, yet none of the heavy “borrowing” feels forced — nor, fortunately, does it prevent the end result from feeling reasonably fresh and original, if uneven.

Down-on-his luck P.I. protagonist Anton Shaw (played with a knowing wink and nod to classic cinematic gumshoes by Tony Eusoff) is haunted by incomplete memories of being kidnapped as a child — images of being separated from his mother weigh heavily on his mind, while the specifics of who took him and why remain sketchy at best — so when he takes on the case of missing college student Lamya Shahruddin (Juria Hartmans), it’s personal from the start. And it only becomes more personal the deeper he slides and/or sinks into the seedy criminal underbelly of Kuala Lampur.

If you grew up reading those Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, you’ll have a pretty solid idea of what Arjuna is going for, tonally and thematically, here — not only does Anton spend a good amount of time with his nose buried in a nameless, authorless volume that seems to offer endless possibilities but few answers, his investigation plays out in much the same manner, one potential clue or red herring following on from another with little to differentiate the two. Which is well and good, of course — nobody wants to know which is which too terribly early in the proceedings — but it does mean that the non-linear script takes some time to congeal and provide a clear idea of what’s really going on (or not). If you frustrate easily, then, this film will probably frustrate you often, as well.

Still, a number of strong supporting performances, in addition to a slick starring turn from Eusoff, will probably keep even the ADHD crowd feeling reasonably engaged with what’s happening on their screens — Susan Lankester, Megat Shrizal, and Stepehen Raman Hughes make the most of their screen time as characters who may (or, ya know, may not) have something to hide, and Radhi Khalid is fairly well riveting as The Gaunt Man, a figure that’s as mysterious as the name (okay, title) sounds. When the specifics and lack thereof falter, then, the actors charged with fleshing them out pick up the slack — and as a result, for a slow-moving film, events actually seem to move along at a pretty healthy clip.

A pulsating score provided by synthpop outfit called Stellar Dreams, and Praveen Kumar’s neon-washed cinematography, put a moody exclamation point on the film’s well-realized atmospherics, and the Kuala Lampur board of tourism could do worse than distributing this around to potential vacation-goers with a taste for the dark side. You may not always know what’s going on here — nor, for the record, should you — but you’ll be mightily impressed by the extent to which Arjuna makes the city he’s filming in an actual character in his story, and one you’d like to get to know better, at that.

But like everything and everyone else in Shadowplay, you only get to know it as well as you need to for the director’s purposes. Arjuna has a bit of a way to go when it comes to backing up his style with some more substance, but he’s shown with this that he’s just about that there and that he’s got the knowledge, skills, and intuition to arrive there fully in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, he’s got a production he can be damn proud of under his belt with this one, and one you’d do very well to give a look.

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Comments
  1. Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

    Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.

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