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Shadow Master

Available on DVD and Blu-ray from 30th January 2023

Horror and martial arts together? Why those are my two favourite things you might say glancing at this apparent mix of The Crow and Ong Bak. In some ways you’d be correct, as this is a story about ritual killings and demonic possession with some Thai boxing moves thrown in. I’m certainly on board for a wild combination of diabolical deals and bone crunching fight sequences. On the other hand it’s perhaps a story that mixes together too many elements and influences. Which is a problem when it’s busy referencing a whole series of religious figures and forgets to include enough fighting. Without a cohesive narrative to glue any of this together those interesting genre hooks are little more than marketing images designed to get the direct-to-video action hero fans interested. The elements that actually work are frustratingly buried under all kinds of extraneous ideas. But let’s examine exactly why this doesn’t fit together as well as it should.

The first major problem is the structure of the story. An Voaen (D.Y. Sao) is first found at the scene of a massacre in which eighteen people died. After his arrest he tells the story in flashback as we learn what he was doing living in an abandoned hospital. Or at least I think that’s the idea, since really we never learn why this place was being inhabited by a band of squatters and mystics. If these were the only flashbacks it might fare better, but there are more to come as he thinks back to earlier events involving a gang. The Shadow Master (presumably named after the way he can magically keep a shadow over his own face) tells a long winded story to a detective. There are a lot of bad stock sound effects and any brief glimpses of martial arts are obscured by a distortion filter someone added in post. Which is a shame because some of the acrobatic moves being showcased are pretty good.

The kind of Capoeira and Muay Thai beat downs that An reminisces about are fun when you can follow them. So it’s a shame that the only one without any warped fish-eye effects over it comes along so near the end of the story. It’s also a shame that it’s just another hallway battle instead of anything more inventive. It’s not even against the final mastermind, it’s just one of his lackeys. The main villain ‘Mephisto’ is dispatched after a silly twist and doesn’t pose much of a challenge. Which is odd when all but the last one of his ‘four horsemen’ are also dealt with so easily. An himself is involved with all of this because he was looking for work, to be paid only in food and shelter. But what is the hospital exactly, and why are there so many biblical references being thrown around? Unfortunately it’s never clear and it often feels like a lot of disparate myths have been picked at random.

When all the flashbacks inside of flashbacks die down the story seems to be either a post apocalyptic or fantasy tale. Why did An leave the real world and his life of crime before deciding to hide out here? Who can say. Why are their no locked doors or alarms in this make-shift apartment block when people go missing every night? How are sick children being looked after when it’s clearly not a functioning place of medicine? Why is one child always heard breathing through a machine, but no mask or oxygen tank is ever shown? The disjointed storyline is only made more opaque by this lack of real world building. Which isn’t great when characters are already acting without any sort of internal logic. With classic lines such as ‘you can only know someone when you feel them’ it’s clear that none of the exposition offered will help clear this up.  Instead the writers just keep adding different ideas borrowed from other sources just to see what will stick.

In some ways it’s kind of a videogame adaptation. The demonic inner voice from The Darkness and the characters from Mortal Kombat. The locations from Resident Evil and any number of other survival stories. The barrels of radioactive waste and the Geiger counter from elsewhere. But when An takes the job of ‘night watchman’ from Boon-Nam (Craig Ng) the references to religion also start piling up. There’s talk about hungry ghosts, the Four Horsemen, Santa Maria, and Hanuman. So that’s some form of Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism. Although I’m not sure the Monkey God is any kind of demon who lives in a Hellraiser style torture dimension. All of this stuff is just here for flavour or visual texture, and none of it really works. The bad guys wearing Kasa hats and plague doctor masks look cool at first, but soon it just adds to the disjointed feeling of the whole affair.

The rest of the movie is about has coherent as An fails to stop the villains from capturing the children. What is their blood ritual supposed to achieve? Only a vague notion of ‘ascending’ is ever mentioned. Why doesn’t anyone go downstairs and stop them when they’re hiding behind a door in the same building? That remains a mystery. The power (or apparently the smell) of evil is left to get away with this until An gets himself killed and comes back under an evil influence. Then he sort of flounders around for a while instead of taking decisive action, fighting some henchmen with his new powers but letting others get away. The idea that this is all going on under the nose of an apparently normal police force is just as bewildering. Which might be acceptable if the action set pieces were more interesting, or more frequent. Instead it’s a strange and messy concoction that fails to deliver on any one premise.

It might make more sense if this was all part of a clichéd asylum story, but no such turn of events ever comes along. The choice of location and the people clutching at various straws of hope might start to make sense. Which is a shame when some of the sets are appealing and some of the fighting works. By the time that hallway battle comes along it’s too little too late, and the final scene is a big anti-climax. With four villains it would make more sense to have four unique battles. Perhaps each one themed around a different idea of faith or spirituality. Instead it never forms a good post-apocalypse story, or a good horror film. You can’t just make Hanuman a Cenobite and not expand on the idea. You can’t have a threatening evil cult when they could be stopped by someone putting a few boards in front of the single door they use. And you can’t just throw all of these random things into a blender and hope a tasty treat comes out as a result.

Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

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About Mocata 149 Articles
A sucker for classic epics, 80s science fiction and fantasy kitsch, horror, action, animation, stop motion, world cinema, martial arts and all kinds of assorted stuff and nonsense. If you enjoy a bullet ballet, a good eye ball gag or a story about time travelling robots maybe we can be friends after all.

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