Friday, May 17, 2019

Movie Review: Shadow

Shadow **** / *****
Directed by: Zhang Yimou.
Written by: Wei Li & Zhang Yimou.
Starring: Deng Chao (Commander Ziyu and his shadow Jingzhou), Sun Li (Xiao Ai, wife of Ziyu), Zheng Kai (King Peiliang), Wang Qianyuan (Tian Zhan), Hu Jun (Yang Cang), Guan Xiaotong (Princess Qingping), Leo Wu (Yang Ping), Wang Jingchun (Lu Yan).
After spending the first 15 years of his career making visually stunning dramas – ones that were often critical of his country China great films like his masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern (1991) – Zhang Yimou changed course in 2002 with Hero and its follow-up House of Flying Daggers (2004) – two of the absolute best martial arts films ever made, and also more nationalistic than one would have thought from a filmmaker who had regularly run afoul of authorities in his own country. Still, those two films were as stunning as anything he had ever made, and it seemed like perhaps he was embarking on a new phase in his career – and an equally great one. But the 15 years since have been somewhat disappointing – an attempt at something similar to Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but with more melodrama – Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) wasn’t near as good, and the rest of the films were either small and easily forgotten, or else mega-international co-productions which were hollow - like his most recent film before this The Great Wall, which drew a lot of (what I thought was unfair) criticism before the film was released, but the film itself wasn’t good enough for anyone to really go to bat for it. You would have been forgiven if – like me – you thought Yimou’s time as one of the best filmmakers in the world were long past.
And now, comes Shadow. It’s not quite a return to form if by that you mean the equal to Hero or House of Flying Daggers – but it’s much closer than anything he has done since, and is one of the most visually stunning films you will see this year. It’s also a reminder of the way action sequence can (and should) be shot – which isn’t with constantly shaking cameras, rapid fire editing, and a bunch of CGI. The action sequences here are stunning, well-choreographed, exciting, bloody, and allowed to play out over time as they should. Visually, the film is close to the equal of Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Narratively, the film can be slow at times – with a lot of exposition – but not so much that it derails the film.
The film is about two factions that currently have a peace pact that holds them together after years of war. Right now, the walled city of Jing is what is holding them together. I just deleted a whole paragraph of plot summary because I realized I’d need to write about 5 more to summarize everything. Let’s just say that the petulant King of Pei (Zheng Kai) doesn’t want to break the peace with Yang (Hu Jun) who currently controls Jing – but kind of has his hand forced by his army Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) – who has challenged Yang to a duel. And Ziyu isn’t really Ziyu, but his double Jing – who is from Jing, and has been raised to be Ziyu’s “shadow” – if such a need would arise, which is has because Ziyu is gravely injured from his last battle with Yang, but wants to take over Jing before he dies. The only person who knows of the double is his wife Madam (Sun Li) – who will of course develop feelings for Jing, the double. Oh, and the King has a sister, Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong) who he tries to marry off to Yang’s son to keep the peace, but is horribly insulted when the counter offer is to become his concubine instead – something everyone but the King thinks is unacceptable.
There is more – a lot more (too much more) – in terms of this sort of palace intrigue, but get the idea. The reason to see the film is the brilliant action sequence – and they are as stunning as anything Yimou has ever done before. His color palette here is very different from the colorful Hero and House of Flying Daggers – the film is almost all brilliant bright whites, and very dark blacks, with grey in there as well. At times, you could almost be fooled into this was brilliantly stylized black and white – except for the skin tone of the actors, and eventually of course, all the deep crimson blood that will be split. The art direction of the palace is stunning, and outside it is always raining. Many of the action sequences in the film are duel – as we see Jing and Ziyu practice for Jing’s upcoming duel with Yang. Yang is a strong fighter – literally – and uses a big, bulker, masculine weapon (the symbolize here isn’t subtle – he might as well be literally fighting with his penis), so to country Jing uses the more “feminine” weapon – a deadly umbrella (yeah, you read that right) – and has to use more “feminine” moves – he pretty much sashays into the duel area.
The second act of the film is likely to remain the most stunning action filmmaking of the year (unless this weekend’s John Wick 3 overtakes it – and let’s be honest, that could happen, but I don’t think anything else could). It crosscuts between the duel between Jing and Yang, and the large scale invasion of Jing being carried out in secret. Both are equally stunning, and cutting between them increases the tension of both. This comes at the same time as what is basically the zither equivalent of angry sex between the real Ziyu and his wife, which scores the first part of the duel. Yimou is working at the absolute peak of his powers during this sequence – and it’s the equal of anything he’s ever done.
To get there, you do have to wade through too much exposition in the first act though. The third act – which is essentially a long sequence where everything is unwound in ways that are pretty satisfying, but also drawn out perhaps a little too long. Still, even in these acts, the film looks amazing – and all the performances are quite good. And in all, it’s worth it to see Yimou back at the peak of his powers when the movie calls for it. I’m not quite sure why the buzz around the movie has been so quiet – almost non-existent – but it’s a film that deserves your attention. It’s always great to see a filmmaker you once admired, but have written off, prove you wrong. That’s what Zhang Yimou does with Shadow.

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