LFF 2018: Shadow (2018) Film Review
After vibrant wuxia films such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou made his English language debut with the 2016 epic The Great Wall. At a budget of $150 million, it resulted in a costly and ill-received project as it was criticised of whitewashing and sacrificing story for visuals. Two years on, Yimou returns to his roots with a complex tale amid China’s Three Kingdoms era.
Shadow tells the story of Commander Yu (Deng Cao), who is actually low-born Jing. Taken from a young age, Jing has been secretly trained by the real, now ailing Yu to become his ‘shadow’ and act as his double in both the royal court and the battlefield. In the middle of a power struggle between the King (Zheng Kai) and General Yang (Hu Jun), Jing has to fight to carry out Yu’s revenge plans to win his freedom.
Although it is not as visually vibrant as his more recent films, the black and white stylings serve as an almost ironic canvas to this complex tale. Ruled by a fixation on duality (Ying and Yang, old vs. young, war and peace), these narrative elements continually clash with each other and makes it difficult to not only create empathy but also clarify which side to cheer on – so things are not exactly black and white.
In addition, while Chao is a watchable lead and effectively pulls off two strong performances as both Jing and Yu, the chauvinism of the court and the battlefield means that the two core female characters are sidelined. With the King’s sister (GuanXiaotong) rebelling against her brother’s wishes and Yu’s devoted wife (Sun Li), their significance and the emotionality they bring are essentially ignored, which is a shame as they lift the film past its testosterone-fuelled narrative.
However, there is no denying the beauty of Yimou’s work. While his more recent works are vibrantly colourful, the understated aesthetics of Shadow are simplistically gorgeous and do not outshine the elegant and staggeringly creative fight scenes.
Overall, Shadow is as stunning as Yimou’s recent filmography but the numerous complexities make the story unnecessarily confusing.
Director: Zhang Yimou; Wei Li (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu