Zhang Yimou’s Shadow is a movie I need to see twice. How fitting. A second watch won’t just help me understand the complicated palace intrigue or enjoy the visual poetry that plays out in stunning tableaux; the images seem rendered in brushstrokes, as if looking at a classic Chinese painting come to life. A subsequent viewing will enrich the thematic texture of the film, which is teeming with doubles: reflections, complementary pairs, warring factions, competing philosophies, surrogates, opposites, other halves, decoys, clashing genres, plays of light and dark.
Shadow is a movie equally Shakespearian and Machiavellian, and marries a wuxia romance to a grim period drama. It may not be as immediately satisfying as Yimou’s two wuxia classics from the early 2000s (Hero and House of Flying Daggers), but it’s his best film in some time.
In some ways Shadow feels like a recalibration after the colorful international misstep of The Great Wall. The bright Crayola palette and swarming, big-scale action has been stripped down to something far more contemplative. Shadow is a movie that is black, white, and gray, with the occasional soothing punctuations of muted green and ample splashes of disconcerting red.
Shadow (å½±; Ying)
Director: Zhang Yimou
Release Date: May 3, 2019 (limited)
Shadow is set in a alternate version of the Three Kingdoms era (220–280 AD), a time when three separate states (Wei, Shu, Wu) warred to control all of China. King Pei (Zheng Kai) rules his kingdom like an authoritarian imp. He’s a spineless aesthete given to childish outbursts. Rather than fight to retake a key city from another kingdom, he wants to offer his sister (Guan Xiaotong) as a concubine without her consent. Simultaneously, Pei sends the esteemed Commander Yu (Deng Chao) into a solo duel with a man who almost killed Yu in the past. Pei has a scheme, and the people around him are just means to an end.
Yet here is another scheme at play, an oppositional intrigue like a secret game of Go. The Commander Yu we meet is really a decoy. Years ago, a peasant named Jing (also played by Deng Chao) was taken from his family and trained in secret to be the real Yu’s shadow. After losing in the aforementioned duel, the hobbled Yu goes into hiding while Jing takes his place. To sell the deception, Jing cuts his chest where Yu was wounded. Yu’s wife, Madam (Sun Li), is a confederate in her husband’s scheme to topple Pei, but there is another complication.
It’s clear that Madam is attracted to her husband’s double. Jing has real physical presence while Yu has withered into a clandestine schemer. The shadow is more real than the object that casts it; her husband is merely a ghost of his former self. Yet the charade must go on. At night, Madam and Jing must pretend to sleep in the same bed. They wait for the servants to leave so Jing can find a place on the floor to sleep alone. The attraction between Madam and Jing is mutual yet forbidden, and therefore irresistible.
This love triangle merges the political machinations, the palace intrigue, and the trappings of wuxia romance into a few wonderful martial arts sequences. Commander Yu thinks that General Yang (Hu Jun) is unbeatable. Yang wields a powerful guandao, a mighty cleaving Chinese glaive. Yu’s weapon of choice is a stylized umbrella that consists of multiple scythe-like blades. This is the sort of fantastical weapon that would appear in a Hong Kong fantasy film of the 1980s, yet it is treated with beautiful graveness. Yu and Jing practice dueling in a giant yin yang symbol. Even in his diminished state, Yu can defeat his shadow. Yet Madam suggests a different fighting style. To overcome General Yang’s heavy, masculine movements, Madam uses flowing, feminine movements; the opposite of Yang, yet a complement to Yu’s parasol of death. Yu has Jing cling to Madam as they train, allowing her body to guide the shadow in the sway and swoon of her movements. Jing was trained to fight like Yu, and now instructed by Yu to fight like Madam; a martial intimacy, a type of knowing.
When we finally reach the climactic battles of Shadow, we get to see a strikeforce armed with scythe umbrellas and crossbows take on an opposing army with guandoas and longbows. Again there’s a sense of a Hong Kong fantasy battle or a mythic clash of old, yet it’s presented in monochromatic color palettes on a dreary, rain-soaked battlefield. Action director Huen Chiu Ku (credited as Dee Dee) does remarkable work with these scenes. His stunt career goes back 34 years, and includes doubling Jet Li in several films as well as choreography on Iron Monkey, Kung Fu Hustle, and Into the Badlands. They’re great spectacles, yet they add to the showcase of thematic contrasts: masculine and feminines, heavy (guandao) and light (parasols), fantasy and reality, love and death, fidelity and infidelity.
There’s another aspect to the dualism of Shadow that I’m still pondering. It’s the idea of supplement and supplantation. The former adds to something, the latter overtakes something. Yu is a supplement to Pei’s greater ambitions, yet Yu also seeks to supplant Pei. Similarly, Jing is a supplement to Yu’s secret plans, but he has supplanted Yu in Pei’s court and in Madam’s heart. Is the notion of replacement part of some cosmic harmony in politics and in romance, or is it more about negative aspects of humanity that seek to throw off balance, such as dominance and power?
It does take a little time for Shadow to settle in. The first half of the film feels like a lot of scene setting. Yimou takes his time putting various characters and plot pieces in place. The long stretches of dialogue are still visually sumptuous thanks to the painterly set and production design. Again, there’s a mix of contrasts—artifice and reality—that make the most of the palatial sets and painterly settings. But taking time to set the plot in motion allows the second half of Shadow to feel grander in scale. I was struck by how the big battle still maintained a kind of intimacy. There were a lot of combatants, but not too many, and perhaps because key characters and their struggles are kept in focus as the chaos erupts around them. What a strange harmony to strike in all that violent noise.
The quiet start of Shadow also heightens its Shakespearian finale, full of blood and ruination. Maybe this is part of the ugly balance of the universe. That unflagging allegiance to the theme of duality might be the main reason I want to watch Shadow again. Is there really a balance here between light and dark, or is this movie more about a world slipping further and further, unstoppably, into blackness? The illusion is balance, but the reality may smother the light.