Director Zhang Yimou (“Hero“, “House of Flying Daggers“, “Curse of the Golden Flower“) once again pushes the boundaries of wuxia action to create a film like no other, masterfully painting a canvas of inky blacks and greys punctuated with bursts of colour from the blood of the defeated. “Shadow” is released on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD and Download-To-Own on 16th September 2019.
Set in a “Re-imagined” Three Kingdoms era, many of the main characters in “Shadow” are based on Chinese folk heroes.
Deng Chao stars as “Commander Ziyu” and his “shadow” look-alike, “Jingzhou”. The character is based on Zhou Yu, a military general and strategist serving under the warlord Sun Ce in the late Eastern Han dynasty at the famous Battle of Red Cliffs. Chinese actor, comedian, director and singer Deng Chao is best known to Western audiences for his role as the albino judicial officer in “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame“. His comedy films “The Breakup Guru”, “Devil and Angel” and “The Mermaid”, are among the highest-grossing films of all time in China. He is also a star of the hugely popular Chinese television variety show “Hurry Up, Brother”.
Hailed as “China’s Queen of Television”, Betty Sun Li plays “Xiao Ai”, wife of Ziyu, based on Xiao Qiao a famous character from the classic novel “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Sun Li will be familiar to martial arts movie fans from her roles in Jet Li‘s “Fearless” and Donnie Yen‘s “The Lost Bladesman“. Chinese actor and television personality Ryan Zheng Kai stars as “King Peiliang”, who is based on Sun Quan, also known as the “Great Emperor of Wu”, founder of the state of Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period.
Wang Qianyuan plays “Tian Zhan”, based on Lu Meng, a military general who served under Sun Quan and fought at the Battle of Red Cliffs. Best known for his roles in “Assembly”, “Red Cliff”, “Bodyguards and Assassins” and “Mulan”, Hu Jun plays the warlord “Yang Cang”, based on the revered historical figure General Guan Yu.
Known as the “Nation’s Daughter” in China, actress Guan Xiaotong stars as “Princess Qingping”, based on Lady Sun Shangxiang, a noblewoman who has appeared in Chinese operas and “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Known in China as the “Nation’s Little Brother”, actor Leo Wu appears as “Yang Ping”, based on Guan Ping, son of Guan Yu and also a character in “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Chinese actor Wang Jingchun plays “Lu Yan”, based on Lu Su, a Chinese military general and politician serving under Sun Quan during the late Eastern Han dynasty.
The young and unpredictable King Peiliang tries to broker an uneasy peace having lost the tactical stronghold of Jing City. His military commander Ziyu, weakened by an infected wound, is hiding in a secret chamber within the palace. Ziyu has a secret weapon; a “shadow”, an almost exact look-alike who he can manipulate to fool both his enemies and the King himself. Ziyu uses his shadow in an intricate plan to lead his people to victory, and reclaim Jing City in a war that the King does not want.
Initially, the plot focuses on the battle of wits between the King, Ziyu and his “shadow” Jingzhou, rather than the physical battles. Indeed it is a good 30 minutes before any martial arts action materialises. It is however a short but stunningly beautiful duel using a parasol and bamboo pole as weapons. Referencing perhaps the famous courtyard duel between Donnie Yen and Jet Li in “Hero“, most of the action plays out in the rain.
Once Ziyu’s political chess moves propel the kingdom into battle, the action starts to pick up. Jingzhou fights General Yang’s deadly and apparently unbeatable Guandao with a steel-bladed parasol. It is merely a distraction though to allow Ziyu’s soldiers to sneak into Jing City underwater using ingenious ancient Chinese aqualungs! It pre-empts a unique assault on the city with the bladed parasols acting as a form of spinning armoured transport. Remarkably it looks like much of it was filmed practically with stuntmen hurtling down the stone streets and CGI filling in the deadly blades and arrows.
As the plot and fighting intensify, Zhang Yimou brings in splashes of scarlet red blood that contrasts strikingly with the monochrome. The action correspondingly increases in intensity, eschewing the previous stylish slow motion in favour of hard and fast full contact blade skills, as Jingzhou fights to complete, and escape from, his deadly mission.
Director Zhang Yimou has previously brought us some of the most vibrant-looking martial arts films in the modern era of Chinese cinema. His films such as “Hero“, “House of Flying Daggers“, “Curse of the Golden Flower” and even “The Great Wall”, have all been bold, colourful and stylish.
“Shadow” joins these ranks, being visually stunning despite the muted colours that make this film look monochrome. It is like watching classical Chinese ink drawings brought to life in each scene, which was the director’s intention. The black and white also plays as a metaphor for the portrayal of Yin and Yang, hard style versus soft, and the masculine and feminine aspects of a Machiavellian plot.
The darkest of Zhang Yimou’s movies that I have seen, both visually and dramatically, viewing it is akin to walking through an art gallery full of bleak but beautiful portraits that depict each move in a cunning political chess game. There is also the spectre of doomed romance laced through the twisting plot.
The early dramatic scenes in the film compare to a Shakespearean stage play, using just a handful of the incredibly designed black, white and grey sets. The cast all give fine performances, especially Deng Chao, who is totally convincing as two completely separate characters. Martial arts fans will require patience to get to the action. Although they are not the graceful, dance-like choreographed duels of Zhang Yimou’s previous wuxia films, they will be rewarded with some entertaining and intense fight scenes.
Lovers of artistic cinema, and martial arts fans looking for a movie with a more deeply-textured story than you might expect, will be enthralled by what Zhang Yimou has achieved here. Another artistic masterpiece.
- At the 55th Golden Horse Film Awards, “Shadow” won the Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction and Best Make Up and Costumes awards from a total of 12 nominations.
- Zhang Yimou has said the look of the film is inspired by the ink brush painting techniques of Chinese artwork and calligraphy.
- Yang: “We agreed on a duel to decide a winner. If we keep going now, it will be for life or death”
- Jing: “Bring it on!”