Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang (China, 2019)

Here's a pleasant little film — okay, going by its obvious budget, perhaps not all that little — that agitates a little bit outside the norm of Jackie Chan's contemporary oeuvre, an oeuvre that (going by the trailers that have crossed our way) has long wallowed above all else in action.
Not that The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang lacks action, for there is a lot, but whereas so many of Chan's recent past films have guns and explosions and car chases alongside his signatory stunts and hand-to-hand combat scenes, The Knight of Shadows is a full-blown costume fantasy comedy that owes more to the non-Chan A Chinese Ghost Story (1987 / trailer)* than, say, Rumble in the Bronx (1995 / trailer) or Under Control (1999 / German trailer). 
* A movie likewise based on the same source as this movie, and to which this movie makes diverse visual references and, likewise, shares some characters (or at least their names).
Trailer to
The Knight of Shadows:
The second directorial effort of Vash (or Jia Yan), this fun and over-the-top costume fantasy film is a far cry from his feature film directorial debut, total Chinese genre rarity Bugs / Shi ren chong (2014 / trailer). "Rarity" in that Bugs is a 3-D sci-fi horror trash comedy which, despite coming from mainland China and having an entirely Asian cast — but for its mad scientist — feels and plays like a cheap slice of American SyFy-channel cheese. Nothing about The Knight of Shadows, however, feels cheap or trashy or American; for that, it is both far too reminiscent of wuxia fantasy and far too lavish, even if the excessive amount of CGI does occasionally verge on almost making the movie look like an animation movie.
The Knight of Shadows opens with a voiceover explaining how Chan's character has been making the world safe for humanity by capturing bad demons and banishing them inside his magic book. The film promptly segues into a prolonged CGI scene of him, with the assistance of some good demons, chasing a demon fish through rough waters. Upon his victory, it is revealed that the voiceover is actually Chan's character, Pu Songling, reading his latest "story" to a group of children in the hope of milking them for some cash.
While it is doubtful that there is much basis of reality in Jackie Chan's characterization of Pu Songling, the storyteller himself was indeed a real person, once upon a time. Much like the Brothers Grimm of Germany collected the folklore of their day — including virtually every classic fairytale that was eventually made into a classic Disney feature animation film — slightly less than a century earlier in China, the Chinese tutor and author Pu Songling (5 June 1640 – 25 February 1715) did something similar, his collection eventually being published as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Some of the tales in that collection are loosely worked into the narrative of The Knight of Shadows, but it is doubtful that that the real Pu Songling was ever the magical demon hunter that is found in this entertaining, family-suitable movie.
The Knight of Shadows has two main storylines that intersect to create the narrative. The first is that of the hapless, low-level village policeman Yan Fei (Austin Lin of Marry My Dead Body [2022 / trailer]) who, upon discovering that Pu Songling (Chan) is a demon hunter, tries to convince the unwilling Pu to take him on as his student. But within their town, two beautiful demonesses are at work, one of whom, Nie Xiaoqian (Elane Zhong Vhuxi), was once human; out of love, she traded her shadow for the soul of the demon Ning Caichen (Ethan Juan of The Liquidator [2017 / trailer] and The Guillotines [2012 / trailer]). Corrupted and evil, she and the now-human Ning are in constant battle, despite their unquenchable love. As one might imagine, especially when Nie begins kidnapping and stealing the souls of the local beauties, Pu and Yan are soon after her, with Ning is an unwilling ally of sorts...

That Pu Songling's weapon of choice is a magic brush doesn't prevent the movie from having some pretty nifty action scenes, not all of which include Chan, who has probably has reached the point in his career where he is happy to occasionally let others get kicked around. The most typically Jackie Chan fight is undoubtedly that in which he faces off against possessed officers in a theatre, but the best one of the whole film is probably the wonderfully phantastic battle in a mirror shop in which Pu, his upper body separated from his lower body, does battle with a beautiful mirror demoness (Lin Peng of the Chinese Ghost Story remake [2011 / trailer]).
While often light-hearted, The Knight of Shadows has its share of heartbreak and tragedy thanks, above all, to the doomed love between Nie and Ning. This love story — the background of which is explained in a visually enchanting style of a painting come to life — is appropriately tragic, and comes to its logical and tragic conclusion during the movie's big, spectacular CGI-overdose showdown in a magical realm one-step away from nonexistence. Still, the segment almost seems tacked on as an afterthought as the film could have easily concluded, perhaps somewhat anti-climactically, at an earlier point. While visually impressive, the final segment's excess of CGI — much like the overly child-friendly and fake looking "good demons" throughout the movie — almost undermines the detailed and well-rounded environment featured in the movie up until that point. Sometimes, whether special effects or MAGA Republicans, too much is simply too much.
That said, The Knight of Shadows is definitely worth a gander and unjustly unknown (well, at least in the lands of "milk-drinkers"). The child in you might enjoy it as much as the brat in the room with you.

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