It’s hard to talk about Shadow without mentioning Zhang Yimou’s previous effort, Matt Damon-starrer The Great Wall, from which it could not feel more different. While the latter was accused of whitewashing based on the trailers, its true nature was much more troubling: backed by China Film Group, The Great Wall was a very literal propaganda movie about the West accepting the superior might of the Chinese military. It was also effective as a piece of pop filmmaking, with soldiers in candy-coloured armour fighting off jade green alien invaders (no, really), as if filtering the palette of his House of Flying Daggers through a million computers, which makes this new bare-bones approach to period drama a notable directorial 180.
For one thing, Shadow features almost no colour. That is to say, it’s a film shot in colour, but featuring mostly by black and white and grey, but more so than its stripped-down production design, it features a far more stripped-down ethos, to the point that little in the film actually matters. Take away Chinese government money, and you’re left with a Zhang who doesn’t need to deliver a specific message; so he doesn’t, by design, for better and for worse.
Few large-scale filmmakers use colour as effectively as Zhang Yimou (go ahead and put on Hero for the millionth time; you know you want to) so it’s an absolute wonder to see Zhang and longtime cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao working with so little by way of primary, secondary or tertiary tone. After a while, even the presence of human skin starts to feel eerie. The “shadow” of the title refers to the supposed “political impostors” used during the period of the Three Kingdoms (3rd century C.E.) of whom there’s little historical record, but who have shown up elsewhere through Chinese history and have become alarmingly common amongst China’s elite over the last decade, sometimes used as stand-ins for political punishment. The film is as contemporary as a period piece can get, transposing a topical issue to thousands of years in the past and disguising it with the requisite intrigue, but Shadow seems to have little concern for the inner-life of its body-double protagonist or for the socio-economics at play.
Deng Chao plays both Jing, a lowly commoner adopted by royalty long ago, as well as the ailing, high-ranking Commander Yu, whom Jing stands in for. Though, admittedly if I hadn’t paid attention to the credits, I’d have no idea Deng was pulling double-duty, even though the resemblance of the two characters is the film’s entire premise. He’s just that good. As Jing (named for the province he calls home), Deng is conscientious and suffers in silence, bound to duty while yearning for a mother he hasn’t been allowed to visit since he was a child. He walks around in the Commander’s shoes while the real man in question hides behind a false wall deep inside his residence, a cave-like opening with little sunlight, where he withers away and becomes consumed by anger and ambition. The Commander plays Jing like a chess-piece, dangling freedom in front of him in exchange for fighting his battles and taking on his wounds so that the King of Pei (Ryan Zheng) is none the wiser.
The King is involved in a dispute with the nearby ruler of the Jing province (General Yang), with each head-of-state (and tribe) playing their own games of human chess. The King uses his sister (Xiaotong Guan) as a bargaining chip just as and the General uses his son (Lei Wu), while the Commander, through his body-double, makes his own power play for control of the region.
Ultimately, though, none of these specifics matter. Even Jing, who yearns for home, is afforded little by way of agency and even littler in terms of stakes (we’re told what he’s been missing all these years, though never shown) but this gaping hole at the center of Shadow feels like part of the point. As a dramatic narrative, the film borders on inert, but as a commentary on the politics of war, its emptiness feels precise. Even Jing’s yearning for home is eclipsed, in terms of its dramatic presentation, by his yearning for what lies in front of him — the Commander’s wife (Li Sun) — because “home,” too, is the sort of political construct that war is built around.
In structuring the look of his film around black-and-white Chinese ink brush paintings, Zhang introduces a dueling effect between how we see the characters’ faces, and how their faces interact with the world around them. Every weapon, every ornament and every piece of fabric, almost everything in the entire film (but for the wood and greenery in a couple of scenes) is black, white, or some shade of grey that binds the two together, so our eyes are always drawn to the center of the drama: the human face. And yet, as the characters train and speak of spiritual balance, sometimes doing battle on literal taichi “yin-and-yang” symbols writ large across the floor, the rain and the mountains create a peaceful monochrome tapestry whose balance is thrown off by human presence. As if we, ourselves, are impostors in nature’s game of harmony.
However, despite its musings about war and who politics really affects in a structural sense, Shadow is also an action film, much to its detriment. Its action is, admittedly, as gorgeous and inventive as you’d expect from Zhang Yimou — our heroes adopting “feminine” grace while wielding razor-sharp umbrellas is a particular delight — but the action clashes wildly with the film’s own approach to military conflict. Divorced from the film’s own narrative context, the fight scenes are some of the very best you’re likely to find in 2018, with dozens of soldiers spinning through a town encased in metal umbrellas while firing crossbows along the way. And yet, the film does its action sequences no favours by introducing political double-cross upon political double-cross at every turn, to the point that all action ceases to have meaning in the first place.
Still, the film is rife with great performances, each of which carries the burden of making the film feel alive, given its chosen palette. They succeed, as do the production and costume design as colourless contrast (dullness has never looked so pristine) but in the process of highlighting the pointlessness of war, Zhang scales so far back to gaze at the big picture that he ceases to have a point at all, failing to tether us to his plot or story with anything resembling a point.
Major military decisions taking place off-screen allows room for the interpersonal conflicts to breathe, but these conflicts aren’t sturdy enough to carry a film that, ultimately, relies on militarism for dramatic tension (and, quite simply, for entertainment), despite robbing the idea of wartime conflict of meaning altogether. Shadow tries to have its cake and eat it too, but at least it looks pretty doing it.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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