The Floating Shadow
China, 2010, colour, 1.85:1, 89 mins.
Director: Jia Dongshuo 贾东朔.
Impressively acted psychodrama centred on two women, a female prisoner and a police officer.
Jinbin Women’s Prison, northern China, the present day. Zhou Lu (Li Jia) is accused of trying to murder fellow inmate Zhang Han (You Huiqin), who bullied her, but Zhou Lu refuses to talk to the prison authorities. A police officer, Hao Ruping (Shen Aojun), takes an interest in her case and gets permission from the head warden to research it. Zhou Lu slowly opens up to her. As a child, she was dominated by her stern mother (Zhang Weixin), an opera performer, and became especially close to her father (Wang Jun) due to her mother’s absences away on work. When her father died in a car accident, her mother remarried less than six months later, earning Zhou Lu’s disapproval. One day, in a fit of rage, the mother killed the stepfather (Lu Guoqi) and was locked away in Shencheng Women’s Prison. That was almost 20 years ago, and Zhou Lu has not seen her mother since, always refusing to visit her in prison. When she grew up and was working as a kindergarten teacher, Zhou Lu met and married school cook Wang (Jiang Wu); only later did she tell him about her mother, and from that point on the marriage started to become strained. As well as questioning Zhou Lu, Hao Ruping also visits her mother in prison – and gradually learns the truth about the whole tangled backstory.
After a long career in TV films and dramas, writer-director Jia Dongshuo 贾东朔 makes an impressive feature debut in his early 50s with The Floating Shadow 浮出水面的影子, an umbrous psychological drama largely set in plain prison settings as a female police officer tries to unravel the mystery of a woman prisoner’s backstory. Shot in cool greys and olive greens by US indie d.p. Michael S. Ojeda (immigrant crime drama Lana’s Rain, 2002) with a precision that matches Jia’s onion-like script, the movie is a precarious balancing act that keeps the audience on its toes as it cuts back and forth in time, juggles the present, and drip-feeds information to the viewer at its own dramatic convenience.
As such, it’s a very manipulative movie, but avoids becoming annoying thanks to a quartet of involving performances and Jia’s generosity in giving his players their own space in which to build real characters. Though at times it doesn’t look as if it will, the pop psychology just about adds up in the end, and a clever twist caps things off by simply moving the goalposts. With its dialogue-driven, interior drama, The Floating Shadow won’t lose much seen on a small screen, but it’s no less involving because of its shortage of physical action.
Actress Li Jia 李佳, who was excellent as the daughter in The Park 公园 (2007), is also good here as the quietly messed-up prisoner whose past takes considerable untangling; but it’s the scenes between her and TV actress Shen Aojun 沈傲君, as the police investigator, which have the necessary intensity to make Li’s more emotional scenes work. In many respects, Shen is the anchor who holds the whole film together, beautifully underplaying the business-like policewoman with a confidence that belies her troubled background with her own father. As the kindly husband of Li’s character, Jiang Wu 姜武 (seen only in flashbacks) shows he can also do more sensitive, reined-in roles, while veteran actress Zhang Weixin 张伟欣 is very solid as the mother who knows more than she’s telling.
On the technical side, composer Klaus Badelt (The Promise 无极, 2005; Shanghai 谍海风云, 2010) maintains a delicate sense of atmosphere in what is basically a series of interviews interspersed with revelations, and the cutting of editor Cheng Long 程珑, a onetime Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 regular (House of Flying Daggers 十面埋伏, 2004), is as precise and focused as Ojeda’s camerawork. Ojeda also shot Cheng’s debut as a director, the Beijing rom-com The Perfect Match 终极匹配(2010).
Presented by Tianjin Film Studio (CN), China Movie Channel (CN).
Script: Jia Dongshuo. Photography: Michael S. Ojeda. Editor: Cheng Long. Music: Klaus Badelt. Art direction: Huang Jin. Costumes: Fu Ping. Sound: Tao Jing.
Cast: Li Jia (Zhou Lu), Shen Aojun (Hao Ruping, prison officer), Jiang Wu (Wang Deyu, Zhou Lu’s husband), Zhang Weixin (Zhou Lu’s mother), Meng Qixuan (Zhou Lu, aged 7), Huang Xiaomeng (Zhou Lu, aged 13), You Huiqin (Zhang Han), Liu Lu (Tang Xiaoru), Ji Qin (old prisoner), Wang Jun (Zhang Lu’s father), Lu Guoqi (Zhang Lu’s stepfather), Liang Song (Hao Ruping’s father), Yang Yang (tutor), Wang Xiaoteng (Wang, police officer), Zhang Peng (head warden), Wang Qin (Guan Yu), Bo Xue (Diao Chan), Li Yang (police officer), Qi Jianquan (evaluation specialist), Liu Wei (Zheng Fang).
Premiere: China Image Film Festival, London, 7 Oct 2010.
Release: China, 17 Feb 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 19 Mar 2012.)