Tracing Shadow (2009) Movie Review

“Tracing Shadow” marks the fourth directorial outing for popular Hong Kong Star Francis Ng, and sees him again co-helming with Marco Mak, who he previously worked with on “Dancing Lion”. The film itself is somewhat of a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema, being a wacky martial arts comedy that focuses on the search for a legendary treasure. Although essentially pretty daft, it does pack in plenty of action, and boasts an appealing cast that includes Ng himself, along with Jaycee Chan (who recently impressed in Jiang Wen’s excellent “The Sun Also Rises”), and actresses Pace Wu (“Marriage with a Fool”) and Xie Na (“Two Stupid Eggs”).

The film begins during the Ming Dynasty with a gang of martial arts masters from different parts of the country all trying to get their hands on a treasure map which apparently points the way to fabulous riches. After the map disappears near a small village, they all decide to settle there, thinking to be able to find it sooner or later. Five years later, Mongolian warrior Chang (Francis Ng) and mysterious ninja Xin (Pace Wu) are now married and running a restaurant with their adopted daughter Xiaowei (Xie Na). Like the other hiding masters, they have run into financial difficulties, and owe money to their rich young landlord Xu (Jaycee Chan), who just happens to have a crush on Xiaowei. Everyone seems to be getting along fine, until rumours of the map begin to resurface, bringing back with it old rivalries and another desperate treasure hunt.

A pretty good idea of the tone of “Tracing Shadow” can be gleaned just by looking at the DVD box art, which on one side is mean, moody and almost suggestive of supernatural elements, whilst the reverse is garishly covered and cartoonish, with pictures of the cast pulling wacky faces. This actually sums up the film quite nicely and aptly represents its oddball sense of humour and strange tonal shifts. As such, it’s an old fashioned affair in the scattershot Hong Kong style, with a mix of gags, modern day pop culture references and martial arts action, all thrown together with a cheerful sense of fun. Certainly, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and although it is at times difficult to say whether Ng is actually aiming for an overtly comic approach or not, it’s generally amusing and amiable throughout, and benefits from not cramming in too much in the way of anarchic slapstick. A few jokes do fall rather flat, especially the modern lookalike gags, most of which are rather grating. Although the film does have a bit of an identity crisis, this never really gets in the way of things, and the kung fu and comedy scenes sit perfectly well together.

Whilst the plot does take a fair while to get going, there is a lot of intrigue and scheming, and the film is reasonably complicated, albeit in a convoluted, initially confusing manner. The treasure hunt premise is fun, making for a nice change from the usual tales of vengeance and honour, and the characters themselves are a likeable enough bunch of rogues. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, the narrative is unfocused and suffers from a variable pace, and as a result the film is not as engaging as it could have been. It does get more interesting as things progress, and the last third is very entertaining, with a number of neat touches along the way to a finale which, if not exactly rousing, is satisfying enough.

The film benefits from some suitably lively direction, adding a very welcome boost of energy to all the crazy goings on. Perhaps inevitably given the shared directorial credit, the film’s style is somewhat chaotic, though it does manage an impressive amount of visual flourishes and tricks, with some interesting shot compositions. The budget was obviously quite high by the standards of the genre, and the film does look vaguely handsome, with some decent sets and costumes. The handling of the action scenes is solid enough, though there is a little too much in the way of slow motion, which at times makes things a little confusing. Still, this doesn’t detract from the fight scenes too much, and they do help to inject a little excitement during the occasions when the plot flounders.

Although no classic, “Tracing Shadow” is perfectly entertaining in its own undemanding, unambitious way, and it should be enjoyed by any fans of the form or the cast. Ng does seem to be maturing somewhat as a film maker, though it probably be more interesting to see him directing solo for his next outing, to get a better of idea of where his style begins, and Marco Mak’s ends.

Marco Mak, Francis Ng (director)
CAST: Jaycee Chan
Hao Dang
Francis Ng … Ye he chang gong
Pace Wu … Ming yue xin
Na Xie

Buy Tracing Shadow on DVD