ShadowReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/15/19 09:43:16
Zhang Yimou's "Shadow" is probably the most visually striking wuxia film since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", so striking that when it gets off to a bit of a halting start, one might be tempted to consider that an acceptable trade-off for just being able to look at the thing for a couple hours. That it would quickly becomes more was not guaranteed, but it does, offering up palace intrigue an spurts of action that make it one of the best films that the genre has produced in recent years.It opens in a time of tension between the Wei and Yang kingdoms; though technically allied, Yang occupies Jing City, traditionally Wei territory. The Wei king (Ryan Zheng Kai) accepts this, not wishing to endanger the peace, but his Commander (Deng Chao) has just foolishly proposed to duel with Yang (Hu Jun), which could lead to war. It seems like an absurd mistake for this seasoned and respected general to make, but there is a secret few outside "Madam" (Sun Li), the Commander's wife, know: The Commander has a double, trained since childhood to stand in for him, but since he was wounded in his last battle this shadow (Deng) has been posing as the Commander full time. The king attempts to counter this situation by arranging a marriage between Yang's son Ping (Leo Wu Lei) and his sister (Guan Xiaotong), but despite all the wheels turning within wheels, a showdown between master swordsman Yang and the Commander's less-accomplished doppelganger.
Zhang and co-writer Li Wei sometimes waver a bit in how to communicate this - some bits of the backstory are dropped as text in the beginning, and some is initially left for the audience to figure out before someone spells it out just to make sure - but the imagery is built to make sure that what's going on-screen has one's attention. Costumes, props, and settings are all blacks, whites, grays, and silvers, and considering the pallor of many character, there are times when one might initially think that the whole film was shot in black-and-white. The flesh tones betray that it wasn't, and that's jarring for a second, but there's apparent purpose to it - you can tell which characters are creatures of the palace and which spend time in the outside world by their pallor or lack thereof. When other colors start showing up in the palette, it's to clear purpose - red blood to boldface the violence, and a bit of gold to dazzle and distract, as much a signal to the audience that there is subterfuge going on as something to genuinely draw the eye.
There are relatively few clean whites and blacks in the wardrobe; the costume design tends toward ink washes that, akin to the yin-yang symbols that adorn the combat grounds indicate the combination of various traits. The general design of the movie is brilliant both in general and in how it uses the monochrome color scheme, with the catacombs where the Commander lives in hiding looking like something out of a German Impressionist silent and the sheer tapestries in the throne room letting the Princess and others be semi-obscured, symbols of hidden power. There are wounds ugly enough to mark their bearers as broken and dangerous weapons, none more sublime than the umbrellas that take center stage as the film continues.
That this can be the case is kind of absurd, a callback to the crazy weapons of more bloodily straightforward kung fu flicks and a reminder that Zhang Yimou doesn't mind a little fun in his action (he is only a few years removed from The Great Wall). There's creativity and thought to how they're deployed that there might not be in something more conventional, though - it's not just that an umbrella is a shield, even when it's given jagged edges to attack; it's about diversion and repulsion. Zhang and his action team demonstrate this brilliantly in the scene where Madam intuits the tactic that may make it the key to success, which is just fantastic all around - it may be the action scene with the lowest stakes in terms of life and death, but it's built as a demonstration of tactics on one hand and an expression of character on the other (shadow Jing and Madam intertwined while the Commander tests them doesn't just signal where parts of the movie are heading, it's sexy as heck). Zhang uses slow motion to show that Deng Chao and Hu Jun have some moves that he wants the audience to be able to follow, and he gets characters to pack emotion into certain blows. At other times, he's satisfied to make eyes go wide with gambits that probably have little basis in actual history but which have a deadly pulp whimsy.
One thing he doesn't do is have a lot of scenes where Jing and the Commander clash directly, and not having to do a lot of complicated special effects to make that happen means it's easy to miss that Deng Chao is, in fact, playing a dual role despite the way the Commander being described as aged and weakened by his wound. It's a fun chance to do a bit of everything, with one seemingly being driven mad by being forced behind the scenes while the other is starting to get some ego to go with his simmering resentment. Sun Li plays Madam's uncomfortable (initially) false intimacy with Jing with hints of the sly woman who might have been a natural match with the Commander when they married, although she seldom gets many chances to show the bond with her husband that the audience is told is incredibly strong. Ryan Zheng Kai and Guan Xiaotong are a fun pair of royals, both playing their characters as very headstrong and used to having their own way but also very distinct. Hu Jun and Leo Wu Lei are able to make their characters from the rival kingdom a bit of a breath of fresh air when they show up - not simple, but confident, seeming admirably direct even as they talk of plans, spies, and subterfuge.It leads to a finale bloody enough that it might seem to undercut the precise, beautiful visuals - is this high art or genre excess? Zhang has never been one to draw much of a line between the two, whether it's Gong Li and Chow Yun-fat chewing scenery in "Curse of the Golden Flower" or the way "The Great Wall" caught people flat-footed by just how insane it was. <I>Shadow</I> may have too much action or too much melodrama for different parts of the audience, but in the moments those come together behind all that gorgeous design, it's exciting in a way few other movies can top.
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