Director: Zhang Yimou
Notable Cast: Deng Chao, Betty Sun Li, Ryan Zheng Kai, Wang Qian-Yuan, Hu Jun, Wang Jing-Chun, Guan Xiao-Tong, Wu Lei, Feng Bai
Zhang Yimou made a bold choice to deviate away from his usual artistic ways to make The Great Wall. Now, I’m not sure I’m to the point where I want to fully defend what he was attempting to do in creating a popcorn flick, but it was a bold choice to make that film. It alienated most people and many of his fans were ready to throw him under the bus almost immediately. With that in mind, it’s not shocking that he would try to make amends to his fans and supporters by making another film that’s relatively consumable for a worldwide audience and still heavy on the artistic and symbolic side. One that could easily be sold as “from the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.”
The result is his latest artsy wuxia, Shadow. Yimou gets to once again struts his knack for visual flair and dynamic storytelling in this high brow genre flick and he once again plays around with the nuances of right versus wrong within its narrative. Shadow is a film that establishes a slow build for most of its run time, methodically placing its characters and plot in ways to create a sense of unease in the audience. By the time it reaches its finale, Shadow swiftly and elegantly pierces through the narrative with heavy questions and weighty themes. It’s not his most exciting film from a thrills and spectacle stand point, nor does it quite hit the emotional character strides of many of his early films, but Shadow has a rather unique balance that provides an entertaining conspiracy film, a wuxia epic, and an intimate character study.
One thing to keep in mind going into Shadow is that the film is not nearly as action-packed as the marketing would lead you to believe. Of course, the film does feature one iconic siege set-piece roughly two-thirds of the way through that features bladed umbrellas, a tense duel, and enough rain and wrist crossbows to satiate most action fans. It is the one big action sequence through. There are a few more artsy wuxia fights that maximize Zhang Yimou’s use of space, slow motion, and dance like intimacy, but this film is far more concerned with its story and narrative than jamming in as much action as possible. The action is crisp and dynamic, coming through at all the right times, just keep in mind that the action is meant to be more than entertaining – it furthers the plot and characters.
For a director known for his iconic use of color, the choice to craft Shadow in shades that range from deep blacks to shocking white and all the grays in-between is a fascinating one. Not only does it work on a visual level slathering the film in a glossy and incredible cinematic flair, but it works as a thematic piece too. All of the film examines the various places between black and white or light and dark from the visuals to the plot and to the various characters involved. No character is strictly good or strictly evil, but they waver somewhere between the extremes, leaning one way or another. As Shadow unveils its plot, where a young man is acting as a doppelganger for a General who works under his master’s command to establish a power struggle between two states in order to ensure a coup, the film increasingly bleeds its blacks and whites into various gray areas of its narrative. The conspiracy blooms and the various characters navigate an increasingly complex series of pathways to the power, freedom, and love they all crave. It’s a chess match film of setups and payoffs, layered in the various nuances of intimate performances and bold visuals.
Fortunately, the US distributor of the film is Well Go USA and it’s the perfect film as their first foray into 4K UHD territory. The visuals and grandeur of the designs are impressively shown in the format and if it’s available to you, I highly suggest splurging for it. This release also features a great, if a bit brief, behind the scenes special feature and, for those who I supposed wanted it, an English dub of the film. Truthfully I am not a fan of English dubs on foreign films, but it’s a nice addition for those who prefer to watch their films that way.
Shadow may not be quite the upper echelon of Zhang Yimou, still riding in the larger shadows of both Hero and Flying Daggers, but the combination of striking visuals, intense and nuanced performances, brilliantly executed action, and a layered thematically heavy narrative and plot make it easily one of the best films of the year. It’s a piece of cinema that easily warrants multiple viewings (I have already partaken in the film three times already) and with each viewing, I find more and more to love. If anything, Shadow proves that The Great Wall was just a mediocre deviation for the iconic director.
Written By Matt Reifschneider