The new millennium brought us a new kind of martial art flick. Gone were the years of manic camera work, blue overtones and quirky humor. Films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers dominated the Eastern martial arts market for a good 10 years. But just like about everything else, old becomes retro hip and Tracing Shadows is eager to demonstrate. Mak and Ng reach back to the 90s style of martial arts while doing their best to maintain modern standards.
Tracing Shadows is quite clear in its intentions. The first scene features some heavy and agile fighting fun, the second one relies more on comedic relief. The storyline? Something about martial arts masters in exile, lost treasures and roaring revenge. The golden days of Chow and Jet Li are never far away, yet Mak and Ng make sure it's more than a simple rehash of the old days. No idea what I'm talking about here? Check out my reviews on Swordsman II and Green Snake.
Besides co-directing the film, Ng is also taking on the lead role. Ng's character has taken his leave from the martial arts world, but not before humiliating his second in line. Nonetheless he is granted the title of No1 martial arts master, but simply can't forget about his defeat to Ng. Meanwhile, Ng has retired to a little village where he lives with his thieving wife and adopted daughter, trying to locate a long lost Ming treasure. In between you get some funny scenes featuring a trio of Li/Lau/Chan impersonators and a rather greedy village chief. Prime stuff.
Visually Tracing Shadows is all you'd expect from a film like this. While it honors the traditional and agile style of filming, it also integrates some more modern techniques to give the fight scenes extra flair. Framing and use of color is particularly noteworthy, giving the film a more polished feel than its ancestors. Add to that detailed decors and the result becomes very pleasing to look at. The soundtrack too is quite interesting, bringing more modern rhythms and sounds while still using traditional instruments. It suits the film particularly well.
Acting is pretty decent though nothing out of the ordinary. Chinese comedy is prone to overacting so if you can't handle that you might have some troubles watching this film. Luckily Ng and Wu prove to be strong leads and the rest of the cast also play their roles with conviction.
The comedy is a bit more self-referential than usually the case, but hey, it's a post millennium film after all. The film remain amusing to follow, features some genuinely funny moments and definitely delivers on the action side of things. On the other hand, it won't win any new fans to the genre, and if you've had difficulties before trying to appreciate the martial arts vehicles of the 90s this film is probably not for you.
I assume that most fans will appreciate this film for what it is, unless you're expecting a 1-on-1 copy of the older work. Mak and Ng gave the film a unique style and flavor while royally quoting older films from the genre. Amusing, fun and quite lovely to look at. Great fun altogether.