To finally achieve victory over a rival kingdom, a brilliant general devises an intricate plan involving his wife, a look-alike, and two kings.
1 hours 56 minutes
May 3, 2019
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Li Wei, Zhang Yimou
Starring: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu, Wang Jingchun
Genre: Period Drama
It’s rare that I get to talk about a director’s visual library. Much less often do I get to gush about it. There are a few times when I can speak at length of certain filmmakers’ mastery of particular scene handling. Paul Greengrass knows just how to stage and position his moments to really capture and communicate overwhelming feelings of claustrophobic tension (see United 93 and Captain Phillips for example. Quentin Tarantino can make a scene with seemingly excessive dialogue between two guys sharing a glass of milk and a smoke be just as riveting and dynamic as the most bombastic shootout.
But where are those who can manage their film as a painter manages a canvas? Where are those who can fashion cinematic pieces with enough visual aplomb to warrant being stilled and framed? Where are those who can get all the elements of the film experience to synergize into a single poetically coherent whole? Stateside, I can hardly imagine any artisan meeting that description (Zack Snyder comes closest, I think, but not really).
Across the pond, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has been making quite a name for himself in sending out stylish wuxia offerings that are all familiar to those who have seen such a genre even once before but have a flourish to them unlike anything else. In the early 2000s, we Western folks got a strong double dose of his vision in the titles Hero (2002) and The House of Flying Daggers (2004). Since then, he’s been dabbling with less-than-worthy collaboration projects such as The Flowers of War (2011) and The Great Wall (2016). It’s good to see him again simply practicing his own methods with the limited release of his most recent film.
Violence/Scary Images: Stylized fight scenes abound. A number of bloody deaths come up as the film gets closer to its climax. A man self-inflicts a festering gash in his chest to maintain a disguise. Characters are barraged with arrows. Cuts and impalements.
Language/Crude Humor: Harsh insults are tossed in heated moments, but no profanity.
Sexual Content: A ruler discusses trading his sister off as a concubine to broker peace with a rival nation. Two characters share an adulterous moment of romance.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Deception and treachery are constantly present.
Strength and resolve in the face of great and complex adversity are on constant display. Characters defy rulers when the rulers have become corrupt, even if it means facing public shaming.
Zhang Yimou’s Shadow is experimentation in contrasts. Light and dark. Solid and liquid. Masculine and feminine. Yin and yang. Real and illusory. These elements, themes, and features don’t merely contrast and conflict with one another. They engage in a grand waltz of contrarian rigor, completing one another even as characters scheme as to how to cut each other down.
Of course, it’s never been part of Zhang Yimou’s vision to turn any of his works into self-contradictory misfires. Rather than bringing confusion, his mastery of visual and thematic contrasts offer abundant lucidity to what can sometimes appear as incredibly esoteric fare. As the Chinese-born author and social critic, Os Guinness once stated, “Differences make a difference. Contrast is the mother of clarity.”
Granted, this is the first time in my memory when a contrast within the structure of Yimou’s film served more to undermine the impact of the whole affair. Shadow is at times a dialogue-heavy palace drama, other times a dazzling work of wuxia spectacle, and at other times still a somewhat grinding and predictable tale of betrayal. Taking place during an unspecified period in China’s history prior to unification, we are introduced to the pithy and snobbish King of Pei (Zhang Kai) as he is beside himself in how to win back the nearby city Jingzhou from the rival general Yang (Hu Jun), one that was lost in a duel.
A classic medieval offer is made in trading off the hand of the king’s sister, Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), to Yang’s son in exchange for at least a foothold in the sought-after city. An insulting counteroffer is received to take the princess as a concubine instead, with a simple dagger garnishing as a gift. The king is appalled, but seemingly willing to at least consider the transaction. The princess is, of course, having none of this and makes a tactical exit from the plot until needed later.
Adding to the drama, the king’s own Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) has returned from a failed duel against Yang that he initiated of his own accord. The big issue with this is that it’s not actually Ziyu who shows up before the king, but a trained doppelganger named Jing (also Chao) whose purpose is to act in Ziyu’s stead should the need ever arise. The need in question? Ziyu is recovering from a crippling wound he suffered in the duel with Yang, surreptitiously resting in a secret chamber below the royal city. The only other one in on this subterfuge is Ziyu’s wife Madam (Sun Li), and there might be a growing misplacement of affection between her and her husband’s double.
Multi-layered acts of deception seem to be a running line of thought in Yimou’s work, though Shadow may very well be his most approachable release of this sort yet. Whereas Hero had at least three different plots running atop each other (with at least one of them being completely fabricated and the others at least partially fabricated), each distinguished visually by a unique color palette, Shadow contains itself narratively and cinematically in a monochromatic paradigm. All scenery throughout is awash in breathtaking shades of black and white, glazed by never-ending precipitation. Whether the scene is one of a casual conversation between father and son or one of Yimou’s signature balletic danse macabre, the visual and thematic contrasts both create and bring out the best elements in the drama of every scene.
While audiences will have to bear a fair amount of exposition before the film starts showing its most intended colors, once the middle acts begin, it is Zhang Yimou in full form. “Poetic” is a word I rarely get to use to describe just about any movie, but it is one that demands usage with virtually the entirety of Yimou’s oeuvre. This director wields a camera, cast, and scenery as a master calligrapher handles parchment, brush, and ink–graceful, daring, and captivating even on his worst days. Aside from those misdirected collaboration releases that he’s done alongside, talent like Christian Bale and Matt Damon, Yimou is one who shows expert control over every element of the film to weave deeply arresting imagery and visceral moments that border on the sublime.
Again, contrasts abound throughout. The fierce masculine maneuvers of guandao being thrust and swung about are countered by explicitly feminine swaying steps while blocks and ripostes are delivered via weaponized parasols. Both men and women adopt the methods useful in countering the penetrating guandao moves, suggesting that when the brutality of masculine force leaves one injured against a stone, a feminine touch may be the thing needed to achieve victory in a wholly unexpected way.
There’s a sequence in the second act in which a peasantry battalion all armed with these bladed umbrellas storm Jingzhou utilizing the unorthodox weapons as makeshift sleighs and shields, sliding down rain-slick cobblestone while being fired upon by archers. This clash of differences is drawn out explicitly through the symbolism of Yin and Yang at many beats. Occasionally, the imagery is a bit overwrought, with dueling scenes taking place on arena floors literally emblazoned with the circular black and white symbol. Very little is left to the imagination here.
Much like with Yimou’s previous work, battles and conflict are not exclusively done in the form of martial arts performance. Even as those sequences of blood being spilled are carried out, another clash of zither players is used both as a method of robust character development and resolution as well as a means of providing a most fitting musical score to the singing of blades against bone and flesh. That the second act is such a captivating soiree of poetic imagery makes the noticeable deflation in energy towards the end all the more wounding.
Even at its weakest points, Shadow has a lot to teach us stateside. Zhang Yimou demonstrates incredible confidence in his old-fashioned methods and principles while using state-of-the-art equipment. He and his films understand that even if violent spectacle may be the main course on offer, all the other parts of what makes up the whole experience are just as essential. There is no fat on any of his works that I’ve seen. As we continue to give constant and loyal patronage to the next big CGI heavy fireworks show this summer, let’s take time to recognize what may be lost in the fire if we’re not careful.
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+ Plot is contained enough for a play, but stylish enough for film
+ Outstanding choreography
+ Remarkable visuals
+ A mastery in handling film
- Some promises on character development aren’t quite delivered
- First act may be a bit grinding. Same with the final act.