Constant Sorrow: Tracing Shadow film review

September 14, 2009 at 6:14 am 15 comments

Francis Ng contemplates filmmaking, Tracing Shadow, 2009

Francis Ng contemplates filmmaking, Tracing Shadow, 2009

Dear Francis,

Just wanted to let you know that I saw your new movie, Tracing Shadow, and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t really like it very much. Although it had some killer martial arts sequences, the art direction was divine, and you yourself looked quite lovely in your braided hair extensions and little mustache, the movie as a whole really stank. Unfortunately, since you’re the director as well as the star of the film, there’s no one else to blame for the slipshod pacing, unimaginative blocking and framing, egregious mugging and overacting (Xie Na being the absolute worst offender on that account), and aggravating, abrupt shifts in tone and mood throughout the movie. You yourself put in a less-than-thrilling performance, which I didn’t think you were capable of doing. And both you and your love interest, Pace Wu, have really nice cheekbones, but there isn’t a whole lot of chemistry between the two of you otherwise.

Pace Wu and bone structure, Tracing Shadow, 2009

Pace Wu and bone structure, Tracing Shadow, 2009

Ever since it was announced several months ago I’ve been looking forward to this film, since you’re my favorite actor and your last wuxia movie, The White Dragon, is a great little flick. But somewhere along the way something went terribly wrong. It’s a shame, since the movie has the bones of a much better film. The storyline is classically drawn, with martial-arts masters converging on a village in search of a lost treasure map. But the film’s execution is so off-kilter and confused that it feels bad regional theater. At times it seemed like two or three different pictures competing for screen time—the slapstick comedy, the martial-arts action film, the dramatic mystery—with none given enough time or attention to cohere successfully. I felt myself wishing that you’d stuck to a straight-ahead dramatic treatment of the material, ala the film’s supposed inspiration, King Hu’s classic Dragon Inn, instead of using the story for laughs.

Your past directorial efforts, although flawed, showed flashes of brilliance and promise. But all three of your other movies were small-scale affairs rather than big-budget extravaganzas like Tracing Shadow. 9413 was an intense crime drama that showed a feel for mood and intensity as well as some cinematic chops. What Is A Good Teacher brought out some good, quirky moments from its youthful cast. Dancing Lion had some great improvisational set pieces. But all of those also had top-drawer actors, yourself included, to move things along, whereas the cast of Tracing Shadow–a TV show hostess, a model, and the son of a famous man–is, to put it delicately, pretty weak.

Xie Na and Jaycee Chan mug for the camera, Tracing Shadow, 2009

Xie Na and Jaycee Chan mug for the camera, Tracing Shadow, 2009

I’m truly sorry that the film turned out so badly. I really wanted you to achieve your dream of directing a successful movie. I don’t know exactly why things went so wrong–I’m not sure if it was the strain of holding together a big-budget costume picture, the complexity of mixing so many genres, or the pressure of living up to the hype of a high-profile project. I wonder if there was pressure from your financial backers (Huayi Brothers) to make the film as accessible, i.e., lowbrow, as possible, too, or if that decision was yours. At any rate, I hope that you get another chance to direct a film and that you’re more successful next time. This time I’m afraid you lost your way.


your biggest fan

Anthony Wong & Francis Ng in happier times, Laughing Gor: Turning Point, 2009

Anthony Wong with Francis Ng in happier times, Laughing Gor: Turning Point, 2009

PS: Congratulations on Laughing Gor: Turning Point—I’ve heard that it’s really good and that it’s doing great box office, too, which hopefully takes some of the sting out of Tracing Shadow’s disappointing ticket sales.

UPDATE: Go here for a much nicer, more positive review of the movie.

Entry filed under: francis ng, hong kong, movies. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. duriandave  |  September 14, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    LOL… I has half-expecting a “Dear John” letter. Francis is lucky to have a loyal fan like yourself, willing to deliver the hard truths in a fair and loving manner. 😉

    But honestly, the film doesn’t sound that bad. Maybe if you set your expectations to Wong Jing level rather than King Hu, you’d like it more.

    Nevertheless, I don’t know if I’m going to rush out to see this. It might make for a good airplane movie though!

    • 2. valeriesoe  |  September 14, 2009 at 10:27 pm

      I like a good lowbrow romp as much as the next fanperson so I don’t necessarily think I was expecting all that much from TS. But comedy is notoriously hard to get right, so I’m not surprised that TS falls flat on that account. Makes me appreciate the sublime noodle-up-the-nose-obscene-wordplay-pratfall genius of Stephen Chow Sing-Chi all the more. His stuff from the early-mid-90s is absolutely essential in my book. I even give props to Wong Jing–Naked Killer is one of the best trashy movies ever made.

      But, yeah, I did have high expectations for this one and I’m sorry it turned out to be so messy. Here’s hoping lessons were learned–


  • 3. Wongsaurus  |  September 14, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    I am sorry to hear about your disappointment with Francis’ latest acting & directing effort but he was bound to stumble in the course of his cinematic endeavors. After all it is a creative process, and as you have pointed out he apparently made a series of bad filmmaking decisions. No actor or director is perfect in their work. Perhaps your expectations for this movie were also too high, and maybe this is karma as Francis has been distracted off-screen by his own womanizing shenanigans and possibly domestic fireworks. As much as I like FN, I’m afraid I’ll be skipping this one.

    • 4. valeriesoe  |  September 14, 2009 at 10:32 pm

      If karma and womanizing had anything to do with filmmaking success then most of Hong Kong cinema, as well as Hollywood and Bollywood, would have ground to a halt long ago. But you’re right that making movies is much tougher than it looks so it’s not surprising that a relatively new director like Francis could blow it so badly. Unfortunately he did it on a very big and visible stage, since this movie has been hyped to death over the past few months. The bigger they come and all that–hope he’s able to lick his wounds and get back in the saddle again soon (sorry for the badly mixed metaphors).

      OT, I was able to pick out several Cantonese swear words when I watched “Wo Hu: Operation Undercover” last week, including the immortal “your whole family should die.” Thanks for the lessons! It’s really enriched my HK movie-watching.

  • 5. Ed Waffle  |  September 15, 2009 at 1:44 am

    “whereas the cast of Tracing Shadow–a TV show hostess, a model, and the son of a famous man–is, to put it delicately, pretty weak.”

    That is putting very delicately. The might be a director somewhere who could make a decent movie using the talents of Jaycee, Pace and Xie Na but his or her name escapes me.

    I wonder what Marco Mak Chi-Sin was doing while “Tracing Shadow” was going down in flames. Mak was co-director on “Dancing Lion” and has spent most of his career as an editor so he should have known that what was being shot could not have resulted in a decent movie.

    • 6. valeriesoe  |  September 16, 2009 at 7:45 pm

      Good question about Marco Mak—I assume that he shot the more dramatic, well-lit sequences that clash so horribly with the improv comedy scenes. Add in Ma Yuk-Sing’s old-school action choreography (which is awesome, btw) and you get a few too many cooks on this one. Not that everything should fit together all neat and tidy but the movie is so extremely disjointed that it gave me a headache.

  • 7. Tiger  |  September 20, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Gotta say i completely disagree with your review. I think you are judging the film very harsly – the movie is a ‘Kung Fu Comedy’ its not meant to be taking seriously and its fantastic fun – does it really matter that there is no real chemistry between Wu and Ng – the film is only 80mins long with very little time for any chemistry to be developed and to be completely honest Ng and Wu are not the focus of the movie.

    Tracing Shadow is what it set out to be – great fun – nothing more , nothing less.

    • 8. valeriesoe  |  September 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

      I’m so glad that someone liked the movie! I’d hate to think that it was universally despised after all the effort that went into it. I’m sorry that I didn’t like it, though—just didn’t work for me, and I really really wanted to like it. Guess it wasn’t my cup of tea—

      PS: For a competently made full-length feature film, 80-90 minutes should be enough time to have some chemistry between the leads, imho. Though technically speaking the movie isn’t a romance, of course. Better luck next time is all I can say.

  • 9. Tiger  |  September 20, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Yeah I understand, i guess it depends what you expect when going into the movie. If you watch the trailer you can tell its just going to be a silly comedy and it really should be judge as such.

    Heres our review of the movie

    Don’t get me wrong I do agree with you about Xie Na (she is annoying at times) and Francis Ng’s role in the movie is pretty useless really he should have just stayed behind the camera and he never provides laughs or any real interest during the movie.

    I do look forward to more of your reviews mate – Keep up the good work

    • 10. valeriesoe  |  September 22, 2009 at 4:36 pm

      Your review is at least as entertaining as the movie itself–love you frame-grab captions.

      I do look forward to more of your reviews mate – Keep up the good work

      Check out my other reviews on this site! Just click the tag “hong kong films” in the tag cloud and it should bring up a whole bunch of them. And let me know what you think—

      Thanks for the interest!

  • 11. Tiger33  |  September 22, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Not a problem mate – I don’t really get time to review that often myselve though

    is Francis Ng in the new Johnnie To movie?

    • 12. valeriesoe  |  September 22, 2009 at 9:53 pm

      nope, but Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Simon Yam & Gordon Lam are. Can’t wait to see it—

  • 13. glenn  |  October 12, 2009 at 1:43 pm


    Thanks for the link! Now that I have read your review, I have to ask myself if maybe my standards were too low when I watched this?

    The next question is: how much did you like Dancing Lion? I enjoyed it quite a bit actually w/o getting all of the jokes (obviously).

    I didn’t know what to expect with the film but I thoroughly enjoyed it — especially the ending with the film sort of breaking the fourth wall, I seem to recall.

    • 14. valeriesoe  |  October 13, 2009 at 4:55 am

      Now that I have read your review, I have to ask myself if maybe my standards were too low when I watched this?

      I’m starting to think that maybe I was too hard on the movie, although when I go back to try to watch it again it irritates me so much that I have to stop. Maybe it will be better after a couple months rest—

      The next question is: how much did you like Dancing Lion?

      The first time I saw it I thought it was pretty silly, but when I watched it again I liked it a lot more. Some of the improv stuff was pretty brilliant and the whole thing had a wacky humor that I enjoyed. My favorite part was the bowling ball song with Francis and the tubby guy whose name I can’t remember. It was completely off the wall and absurd. I also really liked Anthony Wong through the whole movie. It’s a crazy little flick that I think reads like the inside of Francis Ng’s strange and subversive brain.

  • […] Francis’ latest directorial effort kinda sucks, but some might like it for its excellent […]


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