Editor, Asia; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)

[Just giving this one a quick bump as Francis Ng's TRACING SHADOW has finally appeared in Hong Kong after numerous announced and then postponed release dates. However, now it's out, but has gone straight to DVD. I was lucky enough to see a sneaky exhibitor's screening a few months back and wrote the following review. Suffice to say I thought it was one of the better local films of the year - and I still do! It's now available for purchase at Yes Asia.]

It is the Ming dynasty and bonfires burn in a moonlit wasteland. Chang (Francis Ng) loses a duel to Manchurian warrior Na-Lan and relinquishes his title of Supreme Master of Martial Arts. He retires to the sleepy Sideroad Town, nestled in the shadow of the Imperial City, where he intends to see out the rest of his days peacefully, playing his erhu.

Xin (Pace Wu) catches his eye and they begin a musical duel, half seduction, and half standoff. They agree to meet on the roof of the Royal Palace at the next full moon to finish their sonata. However, their nighttime rendezvous coincides with a break-in at the Palace by three masked thieves hoping to steal a rumoured treasure map. However, they are beaten to the punch by Xin, a ninja in disguise, who they pursue across the rooftops before cornering her at Lanruo Temple.

Chang pursues them and saves Xin from the clutches of the thieves. In the scuffle, the map is lost and with all five participants injured, they have no choice but to limp off their separate ways until they can track it down.

Cut to five years later and the treasure-seeking warriors have come no closer to finding their prize, but have each assumed the guise of a normal villager. Chang and Xin run a restaurant - the Dragon Inn - with Chang's daughter Xiaowei (Xie Na), while our three thieves pass themselves off as a shopkeeper, singer and monk. They're all under the thumb of the young landowner, Lord Xu (Jaycee Chan), a spoilt rich kid with a soft spot for Xiaowei. He struggles to gain the respect of the villagers and to collect their rent, until he lets slip that he is the custodian of the treasure map.

TRACING SHADOW is first and foremost a comedy, much of which is very broad and very specifically aimed at a Hong Kong audience. While there are generous helpings of universally appreciated slapstick there is also a fair amount of anachronistic humour, not helped by slang-filled English subtitles, which might be lost on international audiences. That said, however, the film is crammed full of in-jokes and knowing references to literally dozens of wuxia classics and I knew only too well that for every gag I spotted, half a dozen were slipping by me.

There is running gag that the three thieves bear an uncanny resemblance to Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Jet Li. Francis Ng, who co-directs (with Marko Mak) as well as stars, joked that he couldn't afford the real action heavyweight actors so had to fake it. When word gets out about the treasure and Sideroad Town fills up with bandits and chancers, Ng takes the opportunity to extend the gag, with more look-alikes arriving, including doppelgangers of Nicholas Tse, Ritchie Ren and a whole gang of Jay Chou clones. TRACING SHADOW must have been a casting nightmare.

Hong Kong has a proud heritage of exactly this kind of kung fu comedy and Ng wears his influences on his sleeve. TRACING SHADOW is a light hearted and at times uneven affair, but crucially it gets the action right, with some beautifully staged fight sequences displaying a plethora of different kung fu disciplines. There is some CGI here and there, but for the most part Ng sticks to wirework and good old-fashioned proficiency for the fights and the difference is instantly evident.

TRACING SHADOW is by no means a perfect film, the story is conventional and the acting certainly isn't going to win any awards, but it harks back to a much-loved genre and succeeds in the same way that a film like PAINTED SKIN failed. There was a wuxia ghost story that wanted to be a romance instead of a film about demons eating people's hearts. In a martial arts comedy, the audience wants to see martial arts and they want to see comedy. This movie isn't interested in being historically accurate as much as it is with simply having a good time. The jokes might sometimes get lost in translation but TRACING SHADOW still manages to display a wit, skill and artistic flair that have been sorely missed in recent Hong Kong Cinema.

Tracing Shadow

  • Marco Mak
  • Francis Ng
  • Junzi Wei
  • Jaycee Chan
  • Hao Dang
  • Francis Ng
  • Pace Wu
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Marco MakFrancis NgJunzi WeiJaycee ChanHao DangPace WuActionComedy

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