I watch a lot of foreign movies. Mexican, Spanish, Indian, Japanese or Chinese, there are great filmmakers and wonderful stories to be told from every culture on our planet. If you’re just limiting yourself to Hollywood, well, you’re missing out on some real mind-benders. Like Shadow (Ying), the latest epic Chinese “wuxia” historical drama from award winning director Zhang Yimou. His name should be familiar: he’s the creative force behind both the popular House of Flying Daggers and the gorgeous Hero, the latter being one of the most sumptuous and breathtaking films I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Shadow sure ain’t Avengers: Endgame, though. You really have to let yourself be pulled into the film quickly; the first portion requires close attention to understand the nuances of the story. It pays off as the film proceeds. Set in ancient China, the story revolves around the fabled “Three Kingdoms” saga of Chinese legend and more specifically the subjugated Kingdom of Pei and its capital city of Jingzhou. Ruled by a young, headstrong and erratic King (Zheng Kai), Jingzhou is a city of the defeated. The King ignores the people and constantly eschews honor and respect in the desire to constantly placate the more powerful kingdom. This is more than his military head Commander Yu (Deng Chao) can accept. Fed up with the status quo, Yu forces a showdown with the occupying head of the enemy troops, General Yang (Hu Jun). The King hates the idea and in an attempt to sidestep the battle, sues for peace and offers up his sister Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong) as a bride to General Yang’s son. She is not happy. Yu is appalled. The court is upset and chaos ensues.
Except there’s much more going on underneath the surface of this visually lush fantasy of court intrigue and martial arts: Commander Yu has been grooming Jin (also played by Deng Chao), a “shadow” look-alike who is so believable as the Commander that he can fool the King and royal court. More importantly, he can fight in Yu’s place against the legendary unbeatable spear fighter General Yang.
As you might expect, there are lots of twists and turns in the film, and the story takes its time unveiling who knows what, who’s in league with whom, who are the spies in the midst of the Pei kingdom and why the duel is really happening at all. It’s all great fun.
As with Yimou’s earlier film Hero, Shadow is just as much about the visual side of cinema as it is about the story itself. A film about dark and light, about what lurks in the shadows and what might be different in the bright light of day, it’s a stunning achievement in its use of color palette too. Almost the entire film is monochromatic, in shades of black, white and gray. Except for the blood. When someone’s hurt, that’s always in a startlingly bright red. The overall effect is quite visceral and begs to be seen on a big cinema screen so you can truly appreciate the art of the costumes, sets and cinematography.
I will also admit that during the first portion of the film I was a bit confused because I somehow expected that Commander Yu and Jing (his shadow) would look quite similar. They don’t. I’m convinced it’s a bit of fun that the director is having with us viewers, but as the story unfolds, there is some sense to it. As I said, this is a film that’s going to reward your close attention early on to fully enjoy the satisfying twists and plots within plots of the various characters involved. And oh, that ending. Really satisfying!
If you can see Shadow in a theater, you should definitely do so. It’s well worth the price of admission, and then some. Then go home and watch Hero too, there’s a lot of similar story ideas and certainly yet more just stunning visuals in that film too.