“Paul tries to move slowly, giving no hints that he knows he is being followed. He thinks to himself, “Breathe naturally. Don’t let fear get the better of you and cause you to do anything to warn them. They might attack if they suspect you know they’re close.” Out of the corner of his eye he sees one. Is it moving towards him, preparing to attack? It moves so quickly, almost faster than the human eye can follow. If you stand in just the right way you can see it. They’re always right there, just waiting for the right moment to try and murder you.” This panicked tone is pervasive throughout the film Shadow from director Shiyi Shao. This tale of a Chinese married couple living in the US often blurs the line between paranoia and true deception. To create such a world takes many professionals and Shadow utilized the skills of acclaimed production designer Yuntong Peng. Peng has worked in television and film for some time with numerous award-winning productions to her credit. Her role on Shadow was to create an environment of ambiguity in the film until the twisted and shocking final scenes.
Paul and Janice are a married couple from China living in the United States. They are caught between the traditions and social demeanor of their homeland and that of modern America. While things might seem ordinary on the surface, the truth is that Paul suffers from a mental illness. Janice finds herself far away from her own family and living with a partner who is unstable. Paul witnesses a news reports stating that shadows can murder people, in an early example of how the film asks the audience to question what is real and what is Paul’s perception. This sets him off on a course of paranoia that includes a fear that his own wife wants to kill him by feeding him pills. Janice is miserable and wants to divorce but her traditional family will not allow it. Paul’s fear escalates to a crescendo culminating in suicide. It’s not until the end of the film that we realize the news reports which pushed him over the edge were manufactured by Janice who is now free to lead the life she desired.
The circumstances of this somewhat traditional couple from China living in a foreign land sets a precedent of being somewhat disoriented. Peng wanted her production design to leave constant hints and reminders of this duality. While the couple’s home is obviously in the US, it’s decorated with Chinese art. Paul drinks the Chinese beer that he is familiar with and loves. The medicine they take is from an American pharmacy and they read newspapers in English while the cookware of their own culture is on display in the kitchen. Their environment is not uncommon for immigrants and yet there is a quiet undertone of transition.
While it is Paul’s state of mind which is most obvious in the story, Janice held some very important traits which are found in Yuntong’s work. She notes, “Janice has mysophobia [a pathological fear of contamination and germs] and won’t allow a messy home. The house is pristine and yet numerous alcohol and pill bottles are visible, quietly communicating conflict in both perspective and the couple’s desires. It’s a tense atmosphere. I think a lot of young people suffer from some type of mental illness. Paul’s is mostly coming from the pressure to make a living and from his traditional Chinese family. Sometimes the older generation will give pressure to the younger generation about having children or getting married, career, etc. This can happen whether you’re living in America or anywhere else.”
Shadow is a realistic psychological thriller of the most intriguing kind. The story is presented in a manner which makes the motives of all the characters unclear in a very satisfying way. Critics confirmed this with numerous accolades at Festigious Los Angeles, Top Shorts, Los Angeles Film Festival, and Just 4 Shorts. It’s impossible to disconnect the influence of Yuntong Peng’s touch on this film’s feel and tone. For those who enjoy being tricked by this film, a huge “thank you” can be offered up to Yuntong.