Zhang Yimou came to the attention of western audiences with his gorgeous, sumptuous 2002 film Hero, a love letter to wuxia films of classic filmmakers like King Hu. He followed those up with similar period-set war and martial arts films The House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower and became one of China’s foremost directors of large scale action. Zhang’s latest, Shadow, employs much of the same trappings as his wuxia films, and there is a lot of martial arts, but it’s also a movie of duplicity, of gloominess, of contemplation of sadness, rage, and longing, and in the third act is a blood soaked bonanza.Set during China’s Three Kingdom’s era (AD 220-280), Shadow tells the story of the Pei Kingdom’s fight to reclaim the Jing region, annexed to a stronger kingdom following a treaty. The young King of Pei (Ryan Zheng) is a violent and cruel ruler who nevertheless doesn’t want to outwardly provoke war with the much larger and powerful kingdom. However, he’s undermined by the Commander (Deng Chao), the most respected military leader in the kingdom, who longs for a rematch with General Yang, who controls the City of Jing. He’s challenged General Yang, and the King fears the Commander has just started a war. But all is not as it seems. The person the King and everyone believes is the Commander is a decoy, a duplicate, a shadow, a commoner taken from his home, raised and trained to behave exactly like the real commander (also played by Deng) who is dying slowly following a wound suffered in the last battle with Yang. The Commander’s wife (Sun Li) is the only one who knows of this scheme, and finds herself drawn to the man who looks just like her husband but is undoubtedly kinder. The Commander has become a ranting, enraged lunatic who demands both the commoner and his wife adhere to his guidelines in order to achieve his ultimate goal–reclaiming Jing and overthrowing the weak king. But is the king weak? Or does he have his own plans? It’s unclear, but whatÂ ShadowÂ does make clear is that just about every character has their own ulterior motives, that they’re all the shadow of someone else, and all supremely certain they’re the smartest man in Pei.The plot to Shadow is downright Shakespearean, and we’re left guessing until the bitter end what everyone will do, and who they’ll believe. But all around the plot is the theme of balance. The symbol of the yin yang is always present, and a key part of the Commander’s training of his shadow. And when it becomes clear the training will never pay off, the Commander’s wife introduces the idea of not trying to match the power of the Yang fighting style, but to be its yin. The Yangs fight with heavy, punishing spears, so the Pei should fight with elegant, feminine movements, and an umbrella made of blades. It’s entirely about playing what is expected against that which is not. Unlike the bold colors of Hero and his other famous wuxia, Zhang’s color scheme for Shadow is grey on grey on grey, again playing up the idea of nothing being black and white. The clothes, setting, and even scenery are all dour and gloomy, and it rains nonstop, giving us the monochromatic realization of carnage that’s about to unfold. Indeed, the story takes awhile to put all its chess pieces on the board, coiling up the tension of plans being put into place, before letting go and unleashing horrific violence, from which no one escapes without a few major wounds, if they escape at all. It’s beautiful in its own way, and stark to be sure. But even the blood is kind of grey.There’s a little bit more of a darkly comedic, midnight movie vibe here than one might expect simply going on Zhang’s other films, but his themes are no less serious and resonant. Pride goeth before the fall, and even those who understand the balance at the center of the movie’s philosophy can’t help but succumb to their baser urges at one time or other. The scale of the movie is also a bit smaller than some of Zhang’s other productions, but he makes it seem much larger and more impressive where he can, especially during the movie’s madcap siege sequence.Shadow is a tremendously enjoyable movie, if slow to start. While it does reach the heights of earlier Zhang, it hits its target and gives audiences a morality play with a brutal sense of humor.
3.5 out of 5
Images: Perfect Village Entertainment
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!