American audiences likely know the name Zhang Yimou as the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Astute observers may also recognize him from The Great Wall, a misfire that was primarily fascinating as an artifact of China’s film industry pushing for a global audience. The excessive use of poorly implemented CGI and propagandistic narrative greatly hampered that film’s presentation, but one could still see in the colorful set and costume design that Zhang Yimou had not lost his eye for composition or martial arts spectacle.
This is why it pleases me to no end that Shadow is a return to form for one of China’s greatest filmmakers.
Set during China’s Three Kingdoms era, Shadow is the story of a Commander (Deng Chao) in the kingdom of Pei, living in exile as a disease ravages his body and ages him prematurely. Fortunately, the Commander has a “shadow” named Jing (also Deng Chao), raised from childhood as a body double, though he is not nearly so proficient a fighter. Now, with the help of the Commander’s wife (Sun Li), Jing must train to take the Commander's place duelling an opposing general so that the Commander may retake the walled city, acting against the peaceful politicking of their king (Ryan Zheng). All of this, while Jing pursues his own ulterior motives.
Zhang Yimou has weaved a dense and gripping tale of political intrigue, hidden motivations, and dual selves, drawing lines between opposing forces and internal conflicts that reflect the dualities within and without us all. Is Jing merely a puppet to the Commander’s machinations, or is he a fully realized individual? Is the Commander’s wife loyal to her husband as a person, or is she driven by attraction to the public persona and the position of power? Is the king as cowardly and flippantly ignorant as his subjects believe, or is he an opportunist waiting for the pieces to fall into position? These questions are reflected in the stark and striking cinematography, with sets and costumes constantly reinforcing a black and white duality that only intermingles into gray to demonstrate the cloudy, unknown motivations driving these characters, and accentuated by real shadows reflecting on transparent rice paper. The political exposition lasts a touch too long, but thankfully Shadow never stops being an immense pleasure on the eyes, particularly once blood red starts to stain the palette.
The action scenes are among the best that Zhang Yimou has ever shot, emphasizing the grace and dexterity of his performers with slow-motion meditations on their movements, emphasized by the constant impact of rainfall shaking free from their clothing and weapons. What’s further impressive is that the director has seemingly created a fictional weapon for the film: a combat umbrella, with a circumference of scimitar-like blades, useful for deflecting incoming blows or firing blades at enemies from afar. The umbrella fighting is amazing both in the fluidity of close combat and in the remarkably inventive utility found by Jing’s makeshift army - most notably, using a pair of umbrellas as a combination sled and shield, spinning down an inclined street while under fire from archers. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a martial arts film, and the novelty of this bladed umbrella warrants a watch on its own.
Shadow is just about everything one could want from a Zhang Yimou film. Beautiful to look at, with amazing stuntwork, complicated characters, and a story that constantly twists and turns, this is a film that hopefully signals that Zhang Yimou is back to making films of layered complexity and visual splendor. Nothing would please this writer more.