Murky melodrama unfolds in a women’s prison in the intriguing Chinese thriller “The Floating Shadow.” Recalling, although not always to its advantage, tough B-pics like “Caged” and “The Snake Pit,” TV-trained writer-helmer Jia Dongshuo’s debut feature centers on a troubled con’s interview with a cop whose shrink-like probing unravels her past. Script is not always sure-footed, but at least Jia knows where he’s going. Likewise, Li Jia’s demanding role as the troubled jailbird sometimes gets the better of her, but always holds the audience’s sympathy. Dramatic tone will be too old-fashioned for Westerners but may suit Asian-themed fests.
In a baffling opening sequence, Zhou Lu (Li) seems to be in a prison, then at a school, and either the witness to a murder or the culprit in one. The confusion stems from the helmer’s decision to use the adult thesp to enact her character’s childhood memories, shifting locales from classroom to prison cell to childhood bedroom with a dream logic that may deter some auds from continuing.
Things settles down when Zhou has her first interview with officer Hao Ruping (Echo Shen), who is investigating why Zhou tried to murder a fellow inmate. Thereafter, the script juggles various threads — Zhou’s childhood, her years as a teacher and her marriage to gentle chef Wang (Jiang Wu) — in a more considered fashion, allowing the protag and the viewer to fathom what has happened in the woman’s past.
Li looks overwhelmed by the demands of her role, but she manages to keep Zhou likable despite frequent unsympathetic behavior. Shen Aojun has less luck as a cop with an apparent sideline in therapy; though she’s given her own subplot to explain her character’s caring approach, Shen fails to suggest enough authority, power or depth to drive a psychiatric examination, let alone solve one. In his supporting role, Jiang exudes warmth as the husband who has married a woman he cannot understand.
In his first feature after more than 20 years as a tube director, helmer Jia doesn’t always display a tight grip on the proceedings, but his talky script exhibits sufficient mystery to keeps auds intrigued. California-based Michael S. Ojeda’s lensing reaches for a dark noirish feel but never quite hides the sets’ soundstage origins; by contrast, the imagery often has a soft-focus tinge that reflects Zhou’s internal state but distracts from the visuals overall. Piano score by Klaus Badelt (“Catwoman,” “Solomon Kane”) is overly insistent, but suits pic’s old-fashioned tone. Other tech credits are good enough.