Fikri Jermadi gets lost in the mini masterpiece by Tony Pietra Arjuna.
In our Buzz piece from a few weeks ago, I noted how, because Tony Pietra Arjuna (the director of ‘Shadowplay’) has largely been involved with multi-directorial efforts (projects with more than one director), I do not necessarily know what kind of vision he has in mind for himself. As in, what is it that truly makes a film an Arjuna original? How well was he able to truly assert himself in films like ‘Cuak’ and ‘The Train Station’? And why must well-received Malaysian independent films feature a lot of detective (or detective-like) work? Having watched ‘Shadowplay’, Tony has answered much of the first two, in part by providing his own questions.
We follow Anton (Tony Eusoff), who is an unlicensed private detective. He works under the supervision of Dan (Megat Sharizal), a man experienced in the nook and crany of the job. Yet it is Anton, not Dan, who is tasked by Louise (Susan Lankester) to find her daughter, Lamya (Juria Hartmans). An artist in her own right, she has been missing for the better part of a year. Complicating things are obstacles in Anton’s path, such as The Gaunt Man (Radhi Khalid), a ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ demon-like villain whose connections to Anton may be more extensive than previously thought. All this is not helped by Anton’s own mental state. Not without his own (figurative) demons, he is driven as much by a traumatic past as he is repelled by it. Nonetheless, he must tackle the ones within to deal with the (literal) demons in front of him.
First and foremost, I must discuss the film’s aesthetics. Here’s your headline: this is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen in recent times. For many of the scenes, the setting is simply drenched in stylish lighting, its creativity and precision enhancing the mood rather than detracting from the film’s verisimilitude. The colours and tone add much to what we see on screen; if many of the world’s greatest cinematographers consider how light can be used to create shadows, here Praveen Kumar, the cinematographer, should be credited for using the palette in creating a depth on screen and in meaning. Given that the film plays very much like a dive into Anton’s subconscious, colours like red really add to the meaning to be made (more on this later).
As we traverse Kuala Lumpur (usually at night), we see the city lit from top to bottom. In my academic life, I have theorised that structures such as the Petronas Twin Towers represent the government and authority of the day in contemporary Malaysian cinema. Ever-present as an omnipotent panopticon, it surveys the landscape, reminding those within its jurisdiction that it is always watching. I’ve seen such constructs in a lot of all sorts of Malaysian films (and international films as well; they have, in the past, featured prominently in Filipino films shot in the country). However, I’ve not seen it as beautiful as Tony and Praveen have shown them here. One particular shot, featuring the Twin Towers and KL Tower, was jaw-dropping. Yusof Haslam, eat your heart out.
There is also a summation of the old and the new, primarily through the soundtrack. To begin with, I was not able to really place the story in terms of timeframe: is it a film reflecting our zeitgeist? Could it be set partially in the past? Or is ‘Shadowplay’ a fantasy of the future? The answer is perhaps an amalgamation of all three, with an especial focus on the first two. Also in the Buzz piece, I mentioned how there is a strong 1980s feel to the proceedings, and this is something that was really propelled by the soundtrack. Stellar Dreams have conducted an effective audition to replace Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein as composers for the next season of ‘Stranger Things’ (should they mysteriously fall sick after a short trip to Malaysia, natch).
There is also a grey area when it comes to the narrative style or structure at play. ‘Shadowplay’ is crafted like the gamebook Anton reads religiously in the film. These used to be very popular back in the day, and I certainly recall having a few Super Mario editions of these, some of which I still keep at the office (believe it or not, for professional purposes). Here, with the words on screen from the book, we ourselves are encouraged to play the game in it, with Anton as our avatar on this particular journey. Tony visualises the junctures at which we are encouraged to make a choice (“If you want to investigate this person, turn to page x”).
This is quite interesting, because ‘Shadowplay’ is not a multiple choice odyssey like what we may find in ‘Sorok’ by Sahira Jeffrey, for instance; we, the audience, do not choose. Yet by giving us an illusion of that choice, we can’t help but feel invested in the paths Anton would pick (particularly if his choice is aligned with ours). Thus, this is a puzzle film where you are encouraged to connect the dots. There is much here that could potentially bamboozle you as a viewer, but only if you are not prepared with the right mindset. I also like the combinations between East (keris) and West (shotgun); though ostensibly made for a global audience, there is much for you to enjoy if you get Malaysiana (oily men!). The film conflates within its diegesis the multiple and the singular, linearising what is non-linear to begin with.
Additionally, I am reminded of a German film, ‘Run Lola Run’, whose story employs the video game narrative structure, in which the character dies, but is revived after a brief interlude. What’s intriguing is that after each resurrection, even as she repeats much of the same action, she retains enough of a memory from previous efforts to choose differently and progress in the story (much like a video game itself; how else would you make it through ‘Goldeneye’ otherwise?). Funnily enough, and if I recall correctly, there is also a number of scenes in ‘Run Lola Run’ that is drenched in red, the subconscious impact of which is applicable to Anton in ‘Shadowplay’ as well.
There is much more I could discuss, but it runs the risk of spoiling a film that already encourages repeat viewing for it to be fully appreciated. The long and short of it all is that ‘Shadowplay’ is a fine cinematic journey, an experience which is enhanced if you think of yourself as an active participant, rather than a passive viewer. In conflating the old and new, East and West, past and present, and the multiple and the singular, this film is a unique achievement not just in Malaysian independent cinema, but beyond. Simply put, this is a beautiful film you will want to watch more than once.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a Tony Pietra Arjuna film all about.
Featured image credit: Alif.Id