Embrace Your Shadow (2005)
Directed by: Joe Ma
Living poorly on the outskirts of Hong Kong is young Ran (Fiona Sit) along with her paralyzed brother Feng (Cheung Kwok-Keung) and daughter Siaoyou. Having been rejected by their family after Feng fell victim to hereditary paralysis, the trio maintain hope as best as they can but to good effect, thief and troubled young man Juchin (Dylan Kuo) enter their lives. Initially to good effect...
One of the candidates for the title Mr. Commercial Cinema, Joe Ma certainly has the chops to adhere to that way and tradition. But those of us expecting something more from the man who early on gave us The Golden Girls, Over The Rainbow, Under The Skirt while later striking drama gold with Funeral March do cheer when Ma veers from risk-free investments. Embrace Your Shadow seems welcome then and being the second effort from Fiona Sit who served up a smashing debut performance in 2 Young, a stage is set. When they enter, what's on show then? A Joe Ma showcase where he's aiming far, far away from any Feel 100% or Love Undercover esthetics. However to push buttons in a genre he seems well versed in when trying doesn't mean they stay down.
Containing a lot to ponder in its English title, Embrace Your Shadow sees Ma embrace the quiet, contemplating language of cinema that combined with genuine heart and character worked so well for him in Funeral March. This time around his effectiveness isn't as thorough but represents quite a lot above and beyond of what he dares to be capable of on a constant basis. Lensed absolutely beautifully by Cheung Man-Po (Flash Point) where the usage of detailed colour within a clear looking, accessible frame is often mesmerizing, we witness Ma direct fragments from the daily life of Fiona Sit's Ran. Not knowing why she has such a heavy workload and why all alone to tend to her paralyzed brother and his daughter, we face our first struggle to accept Fiona Sit in an even more challenging role than in 2 Young. Because here's a very young actress playing a character carrying burdens and a fear of suffering the same fate as her brother. But you easily flip your critique-coin to the side that says it's potentially very fitting that Sit doesn't look the part as it's a girl thrown into circumstances she's not fit for. Whether or not she'll develop in it is the question. But we do feel comfortable knowing director Ma has no intentions of raking in bucks but to tell a story.
When planting little Siaoyou in the big, crumbling city and its sounds, the support and saviour literally jumps down in front of her and it's a thief to boot. Dylan Kuo's Juchin has the bitterness, romantic hero and heart sprayed all over him but it seems like an awfully big stretch to see him shower the poor family with a healthy dose of positivity as quick as he does. In 5 minutes in movie time it seems like we've spent an equal amount of minutes within the movie to transform the family. While we do feel the introduction of such a critical element stumbles, there is a genuine curiosity to want to experience Embrace Your Shadow. Not so much for the romance but for Ma's challenge towards himself to let a quietly, resting frame affect us. Effect is there, as well as themes, symbolism varying in degrees of pretentiousness but the insistency coming from the genuinely talented vein of Ma's makes us stick with it and ultimately it's not without its rewards.
Although projected from two movies down that Juchin's introduction, intrusion, imposing and also support in Ran's life carries with it tragedy painted in blood, the road we're on holds the argument from Ma and writer Lee Chun-Fai that doom can equal a step forward in someone's life here. Juchin never really effectively lets go of the demons haunting him or those out to haunt him in real life (triads) and is seemingly so inexperienced in the field of emotions that he doesn't keep out the innocent ones out of his missteps. But some innocent ones have already been dealt hurt pre-Juchin and when Cheung Kwok-Keung's story gets resolved, we get our first true tug at the heartstring and it's surprisingly not subtly planned out. Hurt can be manifested strongly, be very much deserved and veteran Cheung communicates well when he sees his family in the end turning their back completely. Although the script does oddly enough call for only Feng's wife to be held accountable. The rest of the family doesn't seem to exist anymore.
Not everything falls into place for Joe Ma then but the cinema choice and language is very welcome for his hybrid of romance, blood soaked sentimentality and some form of enlightenment about life. It doesn't mean good news for everyone involved and doesn't get spelled out effectively enough as we move closer to the end. But it's a challenging work Joe Ma has taken on and it's admirable that he's put a lot of heart into it. With newcomer Fiona Sit challenging herself once again and landing on the same mark director Ma does (not quite there but partly effective), here's hoping this duo doesn't get discouraged by the lack of commercial feedback for this type of venture. We'd like to feel and dig ourselves a little to find the true course of a film and Embrace Your Shadow teaches us exactly that, albeit only successfully in bits and pieces. You still don't run off and desperately do Love Undercover 3 however! Let's just hope it's just something to do while planning for a bright future because Joe Ma and Fiona Sit have magic to spread.
Mei Ah presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement. Print is clean and comes off well in the important areas of colour, detail and sharpness.
Audio options are Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.
The English subtitles have a handful of minor errors but are very coherent otherwise. For one line, they switch to Chinese but thankfully it's a repeat of the prior line of dialogue so you don't actually miss anything. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.
The supplemental parts of the dvd are unusually extensive coming from Mei Ah but aside from the trailer, we get no English subtitles to help us in need along. MV (4 minutes, 8 seconds) presents a tune from the flick, played under movie clips only. Unseen Footage (2 minutes, 14 seconds) contains two excised scenes seemingly sans importance (the first is an earlier intro for Cheung Kwok-Keung's character). The Making Of (8 minutes, 31 seconds) has some minute revelations of the behind the scenes work on the film but otherwise is nothing without aid of English translation. An animated Photo Gallery (3 minutes, 3 seconds) has its movie stills presented in fullscreen thankfully and finally the Mei Ah Databank is as usual not filled with more data other than a bilingual synopsis and minute cast & crew listing.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson