From the moment I saw the trailer on the big screen I knew I would pay the exorbitant parking fees to go see it in the downtown Chicago theater (it’s in a very limited release, unfortunately). Shadow, the most recent work from Zhang Yimou, is one of the most visually stimulating movies I’ve seen in recent years.
There is nothing to fault in this movie; story, cast, costume, set direction, cinematography, fight sequences, soundtrack… it has it all.
The plot seems straightforward; a worthy general has taken the drastic step of challenging the general who represents an “allied” (usurping) kingdom that is holding the principal city of his king. This act has potentially serious consequences and sets in motion a number of plots and devices. There’s more to the story that the superficial political moves; the general is more than he seems to be. His story unfolds in a non-linear narrative, contrasting to the more straightforward conflict. He is the “shadow” of another, chosen in boyhood for his resemblance to another, trained to be his double and protect him from potential assassination and other threats. Deng Chao plays both characters and is so convincing that it seems that another actor plays his genuine alter-ego.
The one who must tread carefully between the two (especially now that her real husband is ill and cannot be seen publicly) is the real general’s wife, played by Sun Li. The above image would imply that she is emotionally close to the imposter, but the relationships are not so transparent. You could say that they’re as cloudy as the inky character banners, ink-wash drawings, and swirling layers of silken robes that provide the visual texture to every scene. And let’s not forget the rain… constant rain which plays its own role in the story.
The fight choreography is beautiful as well, especially the sequence in which Sun Li’s character tells her husband that she thinks that she can adapt his moves to find a way to defeat the opposing general’s deadly techniques. The others involve the use of the “umbrella” weapons; when unleashed en masse they made me gasp aloud in the theater!
Those of you who’ve seen Ever Night will recognize General Yang; it’s Hu Jun again as an imposing and difficult to beat fighter. And lovers of Nirvana in Fire will be surprised to see impertinent little Fei Liu now the muscular youth, the son of General Yang. Wu Lei has grown!
With SHADOW, director Zhang Yimou (HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS) 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 color from the blood of the defeated. In a kingdom ruled by a young and unpredictable king, the military commander has a secret weapon: a “shadow”, a look-alike who can fool both his enemies and the King himself. Now he must use this weapon in an intricate plan that will lead his people to victory in a war that the King does not want.