Director: Si Shu-bu
Notable Cast: Shang Ring, Qi Jing-bin, Zhang Pei-yue, Zhang Ren-bo, Qiu Yun-he
Like most cult cinephiles, I am a sucker for specific subgenres of film. One of which is wuxia films. Good, bad, weird, boring, if it’s a wuxia film I’m willing to take a swing at it with my time. This is how Lady Detective Shadow came into my viewing queue. Quite frankly, this is a film that somehow went under my radar for quite some time and now it’s getting a US release. Naturally, it needed to end up on my watch list. Now, for more discerning fans unlike myself, it’s probably best to go into Lady Detective Shadow with a grain of salt. The film is low budget, showing those concerns in a variety of ways as it attempts to coat itself in early 2000s style rather than taking time to lift its wuxia elements up. The film is also incredibly cheesy. However, keep in mind that it is a made for TV film. It’s still a fun film that attempts to take its audience into its world with a plethora of gimmicky characters, some silly humor, and anchors much of its success on its lead, titular character. It’s not a film that’s going to blow most of its audience away, but Lady Detective Shadow has its fair share of entertainment and wuxia fans may enjoy some of what it has to offer.
Right away, it’s apparent that Lady Detective Shadow is not the usual high budget fantasy adventure film that we have normally seen the US import from China. This film is stripped down, low budget, and it very much looks like the made for TV film that it is. The quality, right there in front of you, is not quite ‘high quality.’ Still, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes less is more. As the film plays out, unraveling its classic structured wuxia plot, it’s obvious that the execution of the film does have to work around so much of its budgetary issues. Whether it’s the more modern editing of the fight sequences, the use of the same setting and how characters keep coming back to the same inn to maximize that set, or the very questionable use of CGI, it’s obvious that the film has to work around. At times it works, the film gets us back to the inn again and again without being too obvious, but at other times it struggles mightily and the choice to use CGI horses or backdrops is striking – in the wrong ways. Being made for TV though, one has to appreciate to some extent the ambitiousness of what it is trying to sell.
The stripped back narrative works much better for the film, even when it’s obvious that Lady Detective Shadow is trying to build a world for the characters to reside in. Like many wuxia films, the narrative anchors itself to a wandering fighter, this time it’s the titular character played with a fun and stoic stance by Shang Ring She comes in, with her comedic side kick, and it’s through her navigation in the world to solve a mystery that we are introduced to the more nuanced pieces of the world building. Political elements, other gimmicky fighters, you name it, Lady Detective Shadow gets all of the key wuxia elements to fit in even if it’s just in smaller moments. When it’s working best, particularly in the first act of the film, the film feels like an homage to films of Chor Yuen from Shaw Brothers’ past.
To lean back into the execution, again, like the previously mentioned budgetary constraints, Lady Detective Shadow can be a very mixed bag. Where Shang Ring holds her own as the lead role and has some fun chemistry with her comedic sidekick, some of the other performances tend to be less than enthusiastic. Truthfully, many of the other characters don’t get the screen time to strut their stuff, but the film still misses out on having strong presences to sell those smaller roles. This bleeds into a lot of other elements of the film, whether it’s selling the character driven finale or some of the action. The film has trouble finding a consistency to get the ball rolling for a rather intriguing plot and narrative. It’s still fun, particularly as the inn continually draws these ridiculous fighters to it and they all end up battling and breaking the furniture. It’s just necessary for a viewer to know to take things with a grain of salt going into the film.
In the end, Lady Detective Shadow is a film to have fun with. The lead character is an entertaining one to follow, featuring a classic wuxia heroine that owes her fair share to Golden Swallow from Come Drink with Me, and it establishes a solid foundation for a franchise that I would be willing to follow if they decide to continue with it. The execution is far more hit or miss. The high-flying whirlwind action is a blast to watch, if you’re willing to overlook some of the editing. The adventure narrative has some depth to its political slant, if you can dig past some of the pacing issues in the second act. The characters are classic wuxia gimmicks, if you can accept some of the lackluster performances. It’s not a great film by any means, but going in with a grain of salt and enjoying it for its low budget wuxia ambitiousness means that you can see the bright spots in it. Definitely not for everyone, but it was a fun way to pass the evening.
Written By Matt Reifschneider