When it comes to classic wuxia and period Chinese cinema, Zhang Yimou is the undisputed number one. A master of big budget productions, the director made a name for himself in the West with mega hits Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). His native China, however, has always held the vast majority of his audience and, following the multi-studio mess that was 2016’s The Great Wall (yes, the one Matt Damon made instead of Manchester by the Sea), Zhang sought a return to distinctive Chinese filmmaking, including a greater emphasis on multi-layered story and character development, both of which have been lacking in several of his recent pictures.
The result is Shadow, a historical drama focusing on intercity rivalry in the 3rd century AD, born of the actions of one city’s wounded recluse of a Commander, the secret titular doppelgänger acting in his place (both played by Deng Chao), and their young, eccentric king (Ryan Zheng), who seeks to stop the Commander risking the fate of the city in a one-on-one duel with his formidable, sabre-wielding counterpart across the water.
One constant with Zhang is that virtually every penny can be seen up on screen and – shady CGI blood and establishing shots aside – Shadow is no exception. Working with the less is more philosophy that served him so well on Hero, Zhang utilises a limited number of locations and key characters, each spectacularly presented in rich tones of black, white, and deep grey. The use of constant rain – again a call back to Hero – enhances this visual feast throughout, as does the stunning costume design.
The action is scaled back also, held at bay until the epic final act to allow for the dramatic developments and inevitable power struggle both in court and behind the scenes. Though the characters, particularly the King and the shadow Commander, are engaging, and the court sequences gripping, the narrative does lull during the first two acts. The real, wounded Commander is never fully fleshed out and instead borders on cartoonish (albeit entertaining) at times (though Deng has to be commended for a gruelling dual performance, in which he shot the whole film in one role, dropped 30 pounds and shot the whole thing again). In tandem, the love triangle involving his wife (Sun Li) and shadow – representing the yin and yang of tragedy and influence attached to women with no official power in a male dominated society – soon becomes uninteresting and predictable in its execution.
Having said that, the alluring concept, surprisingly strong humour, and pacing work well enough that, when the action does come, the audience is committed to the characters involved. The payoff is classic Zhang; a blitz of brutal, well-choreographed clashes, both one-on-one and full-on assaults, featuring memorable weapons, twists aplenty, and Zhang’s trademark pounding sound effects.
A welcome return to Zhang’s roots and a stylish nod to his glory days, Shadow is awash with potent imagery, well-crafted performances and, eventually, powerful action set pieces, tied together with the traditional Chinese themes synonymous with his most successful works. In time, it will hopefully be looked back upon as the stepping stone to another outright masterpiece.
Check out the trailer for Shadow below and let us know your thoughts in the comments section.