After a detour to make the silly ponytail movieThe Great Wall (2016), Zhang Yimou returns to what he does best with Shadow. That means a film set in the historical/mythical past, beautifully designed and shot, with elaborately choreographed fights. The story is a bit of a mess, keeping Shadow a bit below the level of Zhang’s best work, but from a director who has made films like Raise the Red Lantern(1991) and House of Flying Daggers(2004), as well as the remarkably low-key, naturalistic Not One Less (1999), a film that is not quite as good as his best is still well worth your time.
The story is set in China during the Three Kingdoms period of the third century C.E. Title cards set up the basic situation: three kingdoms have long contested ownership of a walled city. In the decisive battle (of this round), Yan’s master swordsman nearly killed Pei’s commander. The two kingdoms then decided to pool their forces and defeated the third kingdom. Yan’s master swordsman and an elite force were sent to guard the city, and all seems to be at peace. Or is it?
Of course not. In Pei, the King’s (Zheng Kai) right-hand man is Commander Zi Yu (Deng Chao)—or rather, the person he thinks is the commander, because it’s really the commander’s body double Jing (also played by Deng), a talented fighter who’s been training his whole life for this moment and has the resourcefulness and confidence of one who had to make his own way in the world. Meanwhile, the real commander keeps aggravating his wound so he won’t have to resume his duties, while his wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li) not only knows what’s going on, but is beginning to prefer the young shadow to her husband. Meanwhile, general Yang (Hu Jun) is plotting to conquer the city.
Lots of intrigues and fighting (the latter frequently in slow-mo, and sometimes involving umbrellas) and competitive zither playing ensue, as well as a subplot involving a potential marriage between the King’s sister (Guan Xiaotong) and Yang’s son Ping (Leo Wu). While the story is convoluted, the film is actually pretty easy to follow, because great care has been taken to make the principal characters visually distinctive. Beyond that, you really need a scorecard to keep everyone straight, but it’s not a huge problem because this is primarily a film of grand gestures rather than airtight storytelling. .
Above all, Shadow is an extremely stylized film. The director and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao seems to have taken the title literally, because although this is a color film, the palette is predominantly shades of gray, with a little pure black and white thrown in for the sake of contrast. Just kidding—I suspect the real inspiration is Chinese brush painting, which features in the opening credits and is worked into the story in a way that screams “Thematic alert!” Whatever the reason, this consistent palette gives unity to a film that can be a bit convoluted. Outdoors, it’s nearly always raining, while indoors, the lighting is reliably dim and there’s all manner of screens and other elements to subdivide the space and cast shadows everywhere. | Sarah Boslaugh