Director Yimou Zhang, the master craftsman behind such wuxia epics as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, returns after the slight stumble that was The Great Wall with the kind of swordplay that made his name with a politically driven, exceptionally lavish historical drama that represents Zhang at his most visual poetic.
This period drama dives into the complicated history behind an Ancient Chinese court, loosely inspired by real tales from the past. When the kingdom of Yang’s most celebrated commander, Ziyu (Chao Deng) loses a duel with the highly skilled Yang Cang (Jun Hu), Ziyu challenges for a rematch, without the blessings of his King (Ryan Zheng). Little does the King know that the real Ziyu was severely wounded in his first fight, forcing him to put a doppelganger, Jingzhou, in his place, all the while scheming to usurp the King from the caves beneath his home.
Shadow is very much a film of two halves. The first half largely involves the detailing of the relationships within the King’s court and the details of Ziyu’s plans. Ziyu, with the aid of his wife Xiao Ai (Li Sun), must train Jingzhou to take on the formidable Yang Cang, as well as continuing to ensure that his ‘shadow’ convincingly portrays his part. Much of this first half of the film is characterised by long stretches of discussion, with little in the way of action. The second half, however, is driven almost entirely by spectacle, delivering some of Zhang’s finest set-pieces to date.
This initial build-up of plotting and scheming, filled with betrayals, back-stabbing and individuals working towards their own aims can sometimes prove to be a little patience-testing. Yet throughout, there is no denying Zhang’s command of his craft. Shot almost entirely in monochrome with incredibly muted colours, the film looks exceptional, with the caves in which Ziyu dwells particularly coming across as almost a theatre-esque space where scheming and training can be exacted amongst the highly impressionistic curves of shadow and light that form his underground dwellings.
It is once we get to the action, though that the film truly comes alive. With the tease of a wondrously designed umbrella made of razor-sharp blades throughout the training, it is incredible to finally watch this lethally elegant weapon in action, in both the hands of Jingzhou and of the forces that Ziyu has at his disposal. It is a weapon that makes for some of the most ingenious fight scenes that you are likely to see all year, leading the way to a plethora of incredible visuals, and some downright bonkers choreography.
The final act takes a step back towards more of the Shakespearean plotting centred around the court, punctuated with violent surprises that give this tale of scheming a satisfying note to end on. Much of the politics at is focus may seem a little too dense to penetrate, but when you boil it down to its bare essentials, there is a fairly traditional story of evil King’s and noble warriors at is centre.
The cast across the board are well-suited to their roles, with Ryan Zheng providing a great level of despicable relish to his role as King Pei Liang. The stand-out though is Deng in the dual role of the fallen Commander Ziyu and his double Jingzhou. The different levels of texture that he provides each character is exceptional, that it comes as a surprise to you at times that they’re in fact played by the same actor. Ziyu is such a warped, twisted version of his once respected and foreboding self, while you get a beautiful sense of frustration from Jingzhou, a man who feels the whole weight of the burden that has been thrust upon him. Either one performance would be great by itself, but the fact that they come from the same individual makes Deng’s contribution all the more impressive.
It is a great shame that Shadow is only finding its way to the UK via disc and on-demand, skipping a theatrical run for whatever reasons. It is a spectacle that would look absolutely gorgeous up on the big screen, but the scale to its approach and Zhang’s devotion to arresting, almost dream-like visuals is not lost on the small screen. If you’re a fan of the man’s previous work, then Shadow is an absolute, umbrella-wielding must.
Dir: Yimou Zhang
Scr: Wei Li and Yimou Zhang
Cast: Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu and Xiotong Guan
Prd: Jun Liu, Catherine Pang and Xiaozhu Wang
DOP: Xiaoding Zhao
Music: Zai Lao
Runtime: 116 minutes
Out Now on Blu-ray™/DVD double pack, and 4K Ultra HD