As I sat down to see the latest from director Zhang Yimou (‘Hero,’ ‘House of Flying Daggers’) Shadow, I was excited to see if this new film would live up to the high points of his career.
While I loved most of his work, the most recent The Great Wall, was an odd misstep for the great Chinese director, so I was a bit apprehensive. Thankfully, despite some pacing issues early on, Shadow manages to be an inspired work of cinema.
The film reimagines part of the Three Kingdoms period of China. It centers around a military commander Yu, (Deng Chao), in the Pei Kingdom that once injured, must rely on a decoy (Also Played by Chao Deng) who is in perfect health to enact his will. While the switch keeps the Pei kingdom looking in the face of outside opposition, few people know about the switch, beyond his wife referred to as Madam (Sun Li), not even the young king (Zheng Kai). It is a tale filled with betrayal, loss and anguish, and is potentially one of the most striking films you will see at the cinema this year.
Shadow is a visual marvel, with much of the visuals, utilizing a pallet of rich greys and blacks. From the stark clothing of the cast to the bleak sets where it all takes place, it is a feast for the eyes. Even more groundbreaking, is the fact that it was all done without needing to rely on CGI. Using controlled environments, sets and costuming, Zhang Yimou has taken the concept of ying and yang and brought it to life on screen.
As the film progresses, the scope and scale of the film becomes apparent. Not only does the complexity of the choreography increase, but the way it all weaves into the complex narrative where everyone has the compacity to betray, and no one is safe from death. While it took a while to get going, with the first 30 minutes focusing on relationships and dialogue, once the scope and scale unfold, I found myself on the edge of my seat until the credits finally rolled.
The grand mission for commander Yu is the taking back of the fortress at the city of Jing that is now controlled by General Yang (Hu Jun) and his son Ping (Leo Wu). With the Pei loss, it is now up to the Decoy to win where he had lost and finally kill General Yang. It is thanks to the stunning action choreography courtesy of Dee Dee (Tarantino’s Kill Bill) that brings this conflict to a bloody yet beautiful conclusion. With the use of rain, slow motion and dance like motion, each battle present in Shadow is a feast for the eyes. The small details, the brutal fights, and the use of blade umbrellas make for a visual spectacle that few films can match.
Zhang Yimou has made a name for himself worldwide from his past work, and this one is just as striking, albeit for different reasons. While this may be his most stark film to date, focusing on the use of black and white, with a splash of red for good measure, it also manages to be one of his most beautiful. Pause on any given scene throughout this movie, and you will see a work of brilliance. While his past films are known for the use of colour and flare, I would argue Shadow is his most visually magnificent film to date. The stark nature of the subject matter and the bleak story all work to paint a world that says as much with visuals as it does with dialogue.
The music by Lao Zai, aka Loudboy, has done wonders to capture the idea of Ying and Yang, with a soundtrack that ebbs and flows with the action on screen. The use of traditional Chinese instruments such as the flute and strings all paint a world tension, with passion and peacefulness constantly in flux, and a constant feeling of anxiety around every corner.
Zhang takes his time with Shadow, with it being well over thirty minutes before there is the inkling of a fight on screen. He takes this time to paint all the elements at work, along with introducing all players that will soon enter the fray. While it grips you with the visuals and the concept of the world, the slow pace will make it hard for the mass market to jump in and stay for the full length. And that is a shame because while it does start out slow, the film as a whole is a beautifully crafted work of cinema, and pulls you into its narrative and does not let you go until the final blade is trust.
In the end, Shadow is a truly stunning work from a great director. The visuals are a testament to what is possible within the cinematic medium even without relying on CGI, and the story is one that gets its teeth into you. If you can look past an exciting yet slow beginning, few films are as masterfully crafted both visually and creativity then Shadow from director Zhang Yimou.