“Shadow” is a terrific film — gorgeous, violent, Byzantine, inventive, just a joy to watch.
Once it gets going.
Director Zhang Yimou’s latest film (he numbers “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” among his remarkable achievements; let’s just forget he made “The Great Wall”) touches on identity, trust (and lack thereof) and the power of women (nothing new on that front for him). Zhang spills buckets of blood along the way — also nothing new — but as usual the battles are so beautifully choreographed, with gravity hardly an issue, that the gore just seems like a necessary part of the equation.
The film is set in ancient China, where an uneasy peace exists between kingdoms. The king of Pei (Zheng Kai) is a pretentious idiot; his sister, Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), is referred to as “wild,” though she’s clearly got a lot more on the ball than her brother.
They hail the return of the city’s warrior hero, the Commander (Chao Deng), but he bears disturbing news: Acting on the king’s behalf, the Commander has challenged Yang (Jun Hu), the military leader of a nearby city, to a duel in an effort to retake the city.
The king is incensed — he has negotiated away just about everything to maintain peace (a poem of his own composition boasting of peace adorns a wall, and given his general level of intelligence, it’s too bad we never hear it). He strips the Commander of his rank, reducing him to the status of a commoner.
But he’s not really the Commander at all. He’s actually Jing, taken as a boy by the Commander’s father because of the boys’ uncanny resemblance to one another. His entire life has been spent as an indentured servant, devoted to training to take the real Commander’s place (Chao plays both roles) if needed — a shadow — and thanks to a grievous wound from a previous battle that is slowly killing him, the time is now.
It’s all part of a longer, more convoluted plan to take the city, a source of pride to the people of Pei (something totally lost on the king). It takes a half-hour or so to set all this up, with a lot of explanation and introduction of characters, establishing a deadly pace at first. This means it takes that long to get to the first fight scene, conducted in the cavernous chambers hidden in the palace, in which the real Commander has ensconced himself.
The Commander must train Jing to last as long as possible with Yang (part of the longer plan), but it’s not going well. As it stands, in fact, it’s hopeless. That’s when Madam (Li Sun), the Commander’s wife, steps in. Her weapon? An umbrella. She tells the men that Jing must embrace his feminine side — fight like a woman, sort of, as water to fire (it makes perfect sense the way she explains it; sorry for the clunky translation).
This is crucial to the theme of yin and yang, expressed not just through the familiar symbol, which is used a lot, but through the dual nature of Madam’s strategy, and the Commander’s identity.
And let’s not forget the uncomfortable love story.
It’s all leading to the duel, of course, which is juxtaposed brilliantly with an epic, stunningly choreographed raid on the city, with the army of Pei fighting with tricked-out umbrellas made of metal blades, and they are awesome. Not only are they used as weapons, but also as transportation (you’ll just have to see it for yourself), and that’s more awesome, still.
Zhang shoots all of this, and the entire film, in various shades of black and gray, draining color from his frames. Only flesh and blood, literally, are seen in real color, and the effect is to both create an almost gothic sense of dread and to make what colors we do see all the more striking. (It rains constantly, adding to the effect.)
“Shadow” is absurdly entertaining once you get past that first introductory hurdle. But the rest of the film is well worth the wait.
Well Go USA presents a film directed by Zhang Yimou and written by Li Wei and Zhang Yimou. No MPAA rating. Running time: 116 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Opens Friday at local theaters.