Dir: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Chao Deng, Li Sun, Kai Zhang, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, and Lei Wu
Director Zhang Yimou rose to international acclaim with the brilliant wuxia films (a genre of Chinese fiction where martial artist heroes interact with Ancient China) “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”. The director’s big splash in America was supposed to be the epic heroes versus monster’s movie “The Great Wall”. The splash, unfortunately, was a misstep for the talented director who, with his earlier films, accomplished the often-difficult combination of crafting grand action fight scenes and detailed character development supported by exceptional performances.
“Shadow” is Yimou’s newest film and it’s a welcome return to form for the director. The film is carefully crafted, with some exceptional fight choreography and action set pieces. It is sustained by an impressive design, one that the director has become a true auteur in the development of desaturated atmospheres and mesmerizing locales. These aspects are complimented nicely by some great performances, ones that make the slow and complicated courtroom-like drama sensibilities much more manageable than they otherwise might be.
Set during China’s Three Kingdom’s era, the King of Pei (Kai Zhang), an arrogant and pompous ruler, and his sister, Princess Qingping (Xiaotong Guan), rule a kingdom that has found peaceful times because of the cruel King’s policies. The Commander (Chao Deng) holds much of the admiration for finding this peace. However, the Commander has a secret shadow, an identical double that has been trained since childhood to take the place of the Commander in case something unfortunate should happen. Shifting influences and betrayal soon begin and spell disaster for the kingdom.
Zhang Yimou has an impressive visual style, capable of combining meticulously crafted action scenes within a beautifully composed environments. “Shadow” is desaturated of color, the deep variations of grey, black, and blue take over and add an atmosphere that feels lonesome, one that feels steeped in an everlasting state of dread. It’s a nice design once the action settles into its superb spectacle; combinations of slow-motion acrobatics and swordplay mix with large droplets of rain and deep gushes of red blood unleashed amidst the battle. Yimou’s talents are on a full and impressive display in the final act of the film.
The narrative is dense with plot devices that have subtleties intertwined within that aren’t always easy to make sense of. There are no straight forward answers to questions, motivations are blanketed in mystery, and conversation is filled with untrustworthiness. While it takes some time building towards the true purpose of why all the wheels are spinning, the performances from the cast make it completely interesting to watch. Chao Deng plays two characters within the film and does a fantastic job of displaying the melodrama of each, one that bleeds rage and another that controls the internal struggle.
“Shadow” is a return to form for Zhang Yimou, an action film filled with moments of impressive violence and the stunning dance of combat. It’s so wonderfully composed that it feels more like a ballet than a fight. While the story wanders more often than it should, the grand style and careful structure of the characters make “Shadow” an entertaining and artistic action drama.
4.00 out of 5.00