A return to form in some ways, Zhang’s monochrome martial-arts drama is visually gorgeous but not always compelling.
Dir. Zhang Yimou
2018 | China | Drama/Action | 116 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin
NC16 (passed clean) for violence
Cast: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Ryan Zheng, Guan Xiaotong, Wang Jingchun
Plot: The story of a great king and his people, who will be expelled from their homeland and will aspire to claim it.
Awards: Official Selection (Venice)
International Sales: Bloom Media
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: In Theatres
First Published: 10 Oct 2018
Shadow is a return to form in some ways for Zhang Yimou after the nadir that was The Great Wall (2016). Back to his early 2000s obsession with martial arts cinema, Zhang’s latest should whet the appetite of fans, though I would caution that Shadow is not quite the full-blown spectacle that Hero (2002) was, nor is it close to the rapturous House of Flying Daggers (2004), which I think is his finest contribution to the genre.
Instead, one could see Shadow as a slightly more nondescript work in the sense that it doesn’t appear to have come with great fanfare or anticipation, nor has it been wildly marketed as a new action epic by China’s most revered director.
Like its title suggests, it seems to have blended into the background, operating within the shadows of the moviegoing world, and hoping to spring a surprise on the audience.
With no star name in sight, Zhang tempers expectations while at the same time injects a fresh visual approach to the genre by shooting the film in monochrome, with heavy use of grayish tones that is reminiscent of Chinese brush painting and calligraphy that are prominently featured in the film.
Most scenes have a poetic quality, a kind of wistful essence to it, that grounds the story in a myth-like setting of the Three Kingdoms era.
“Without the real, there can be no shadow. A principle no one’s understood.”
It is nearly impossible to write about the characters and their roles because Zhang has made a film with a complicated plotting, in which the lead character as played with extraordinary skill (in a dual role) by Deng Chao assumes different personas.
Sun Li, in a subtle performance of penetrating power, is the wife of a commander-in-hiding who has been displaced and longing to reclaim his power. Both Deng and Sun are nominated for lead acting at the upcoming Golden Horse awards, with the film boasting 12 nominations in total, including Best Picture and Director.
The cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding (a regular collaborator since Flying Daggers) is certainly top-drawer quality, and in a training duel between two parties occurring in the middle of the film, we bear witness to not just the fight choreography (grounded fascinatingly in the masculinity-femininity dichotomy, and quite literally in the enormous yin-yang taichi symbol that they train on), but how the camera accentuates the elegance of their movements by capturing in slow-motion the action through rain and water.
Shadow begins with a rather tepid first 45 minutes or so, where there is so much narrative-building and dialogue that it could have been structurally more effective if the story had anticipated (martial arts) action earlier, rather than assuming audiences would be patient enough to wade through thick amounts of exposition to get to what they come for.
However, Zhang’s film is a different animal altogether in the second half, as if there had been a half-time team talk that galvanised everyone. Look out for an astounding umbrella attack sequence in the third act, which could be one of the finest action highlights of the year.