For many directors, success can lead to stagnancy. All too often, accomplishment is followed by a push toward reiteration rather than any embrace of divergence. Conversely, failure can push artists to explore new ideas. Across an extensive career, Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou has faced both. Films such as Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers were critical and commercial victories in China. They also managed to transcend the arthouse circuit aboard, introducing many viewers to the exquisiteness of wuxia. While 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower gave us Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, grandeur, and a third-act besmeared in bloodletting, it also suggested that a formula of opulent period pieces might be losing traction.
That reversal of fortune bottomed out with the release of 2017’s The Great Wall. While the film did modest business in China, a pony-tailed Matt Damon tackling CG monsters did little to help the domestic box office. Critical response was mixed, investors lost money, and it seemed unlikely that Yimou would pander to Western tastes anytime soon.
Largely, that benefits Shadow, the director’s latest effort, which arrives in selected U.S. theatres on May 3rd. Martial arts convention characteristically courts excitement by hinting at the exhilarating action sequences to come. But here, there’s scant indication of the battles which will punctuate the melodrama. Instead, Shadow flaunts a slow-burn of intrigue, political tension, and character development. It’s a smart decision, goading audiences to be invested in characters once the swordplay starts. What’s particularly amazing is how relevant it is today, with the film’s scribes fastidiously inferring contemporary parallels.
Offering an alternative take of one of Romance of the Three Kingdom’s tales, the storyline is set in third century China. Here, citizens from the kingdom of Pei still lament the loss of one of its cities to a rival faction. Some, like a young and cowardly king are merely interesting in protecting their own societal standing. He’s even willing to hand over his sister to safeguard his own self-interests.
But that’s not the sentiment shared by Commander Yu and his indistinguishable stand-in, Jing. Here, writers Wei Li and Zhang challenge the enduring warrior archetype, by offering a swordsman whose physicality has been humbled by years of fighting. Hoping to preserve his reputation, Yu recruited the services of a lookalike ‘shadow’, while he plots from the sidelines. Yu’s wife must play along with the character, which unsurprisingly sparks attraction between the two.
Yimou doesn’t underestimate the attentiveness of the audience, offering a refreshing reprieve from the American box office’s procession of mundane blockbusters. Offering a scant amount of time for reflection, there are bits of information that breathe new insight into previous scenes. Quite often, Shadow can feel like a complex puzzle of interlocking parts. When Yimou moves one piece, others are revealed, making for an entrancing but cognitively challenging viewing. Cinephiles will undoubtedly want to watch Shadow more than once, discerning small but satisfying details overlooked the first time.
Undoubtedly, insightful viewers will dwell on the inventory of dualities. Some of these, are rooted in the visual, with fighters squaring off on giant taichi circles, commonly known as the ‘Ying-Yang’ in the West. But most of these tensions are subtly embedded in the plotline, such as when Yu’s wife (referred to as Madam) posits that pitting sinewy battle styles against similar forms is futile. Instead, she suggests employing femininity, bringing a grace and poise that disrupts masculine might. Seeing umbrella-carrying fighters overtake opponents with menacing weapons is a joy to watch, and the director clearly understands the thrill of novelty.
What follows are fight sequences that demonstrate an astonishing awareness of cinematic precedent, and consistently offer originality. There are moments that might sound incredulous in description, but these third-act highlights are truly memorable, earning action choreographer Dee Dee a well-deserved Golden Horse nomination.
Similarly, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding’s work is just as stunning. Using a near-monochromatic color palette that emulates a classical Chinese ink brush aesthetic, there’s the sporadic inclusion of color to grab our attention. Whether it’s sun-bleached wood, a verdant patch of bamboo hammered by raindrops or slow-motion splashes of blood, the subtle highlighting keeps Shadow rooted in the organic.
When the final credits roll, you’ll likely still be processing Shadow’s nuances, ruminating over the details. Like a master chess player, Zhang Yimou bedazzles and even bamboozles. He flaunts the unmatched beauty of the old world, and the Machiavellianism that still corrupts the powerful like a wild pestilence. While style habitually overpowers substance at the cineplex, this is the rare match rooted in parity, and the results are stunning.