By Jeremy Carr.
Zhang Yimou has had a remarkable career, one distinguished by its approximate division into two distinct phases. There were first his mostly regional dramas, intimate, relatively moderate titles like his 1987 debut, Red Sorghum, 1990’s Ju Dou, and 1999’s The Road Home, still perhaps his best film. Then there was a shift to large-scale historical spectacles, lavish, action-packed, and effects-driven features like Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and, more recently, the unjustly maligned The Great Wall (2016). With this partition in mind (allowing for an occasional odd exception), Zhang’s latest offering, Shadow (2018), continues the trend of his latter fare, with its elaborately-staged fighting sequences and its period setting. But with a more resonant, somewhat laborious narrative, a studied pace lately avoided, and other slight divergences from its immediate predecessors, it also signals a partial swing toward something yet untried.
Set during the “Three Kingdoms” era of Chinese history, around 220–280 A.D., Shadow’s most prominent variation, and its one real impediment, manifests in the early stage-setting of its scenario. It’s a complex, Shakespearean tale of loyalty, betrayal, and grand palace intrigue, and it takes a considerable amount of time – or at least Zhang devotes a considerable amount of time – to establish the primary players and affirm their intentions. In the center of it all is the king of Pei (Zheng Kai), who has lost a portion of his kingdom to General Yang (Jun Hu). To potentially reclaim the land, the king proposes his sister, Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), to be the prospective wife of Yang’s son. Instead, much to the king’s chagrin, the general suggests making her a mere concubine. At the same time, the king’s commander (Deng Chao) is at his own personal/professional crossroads, this relating to his affiliation with the king and his role in the territory. What is more, the commander’s station is also muddied by the veiled fact he isn’t the commander at all, but rather an ambitious doppelganger, Jing (also played by Chao), who has assumed the commander’s identity, under the tutelage of the true commander (who is alive but ailing), and, in the process, has sparked a complicated relationship with the commander’s wife (Sun Li).
Pei is clearly a kingdom abounding in secrecy (literally with secret doorways and hidden chambers), and while due time is understandably given to the intricacy of Shadow’s multifaceted associations, the film does struggle to take off. Its prolonged introductory scenes yield an occasionally bewildering conspiracy until the picture clarifies, through vigorous deed rather than deliberate word, the forces of its aggregate power play. Rightfully consumed by desperation and suspicion, the king is a feisty, malicious tyrant, and Zheng is frighteningly animated as the cunning, disturbed, and half-crazed despot. But it is Deng who strikes Shadow’s emotional chord (a chord oftentimes overwhelmed by the visual dazzle of recent Zhang offerings). As Jing in particular, scheming to carve out a niche of his own, to verify an identity beyond his post as the commander’s “shadow,” his desires are expressively appreciable within the context of the king’s viciousness and the commander’s manipulation. And with so much virile posturing elsewhere, Deng’s subtle, considerate relationship with Sun is a sensitive boon to the picture. He is also the one who embodies Shadow’s stress on duality and deception, which is evident in, among other things, the film’s overt yin and yang symbolism.
Such an oppositional yet allied dynamic is also carried over to Shadow’s martial arts arrangements, which are notable for a male/female dichotomy inherent in the choice of weaponry – “feminine,” blade-bearing umbrellas versus broad, brutal sabers – and in the corresponding movements – graceful and nimble versus rough and rushed. Against the rampant dissonance, however, Zhang likewise emphasizes synchronicity, distinct personal and combative qualities that work in harmonious proficiency, like the coordinated musical twang of the film’s zither accompaniment or the practiced coordination of the picture’s calligraphic designs. Accordingly, credit for Shadow’s impressively characteristic imagery, particularly the uniform shades of its ornate textures and settings, goes to a synchronous skillset shared by Zhang, his frequent cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, and production designer Ma Kwong Wing.
Zhang’s knack for the pageantry and choreography of wuxia action has by now been well-established, and the operatic affinity, the gravity-defying movements, and the slow-motion skirmishes are almost as stunning in Shadow as they are in his more sumptuous epics. Setting them apart is Shadow’s elemental consistency and the visceral quality of its action. Not only is the color drained from Zhang’s canvas, but it has been replaced with a pronounced proliferation of cold, damp saturation and the slickness of incessant rainfall. Further liquefying the picture is Shadow’s effusive bloodletting, far more graphic than prior Zhang films. Indeed, the violence is at times quite brutal, bypassing the somewhat detached nature of Zhang’s more colorful, balletic, and aerial features for something grounded, something coarser and less refined. As bodies and surrounding wooden structures splinter and twist, bend and break, or open to geysers of rain and blood, the sensation is one of gritty, tangible force.
Considering Shadow’s advancing animosity, wherein every involved male appears to be perpetually and irrevocably primed for antagonism, the eventual fighting is inevitable. It’s not immediately projected, though, as it is in those aforementioned Zhang spectacles, because here Zhang is working with conspicuous restraint, not just in terms of Shadow’s stately pace to start but in the film’s muted, monochromatic visual expression. To suit its tempered exposition, the film’s palette is nearly colorless, its tone diluted, and its preliminary scenes evince only the slightest indication of what the film holds in store. Once Shadow’s latter half launches, however, it’s a dazzling display of stylishly systematic warfare, which is just what one now expects from Zhang Yimou.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press. He reviewed Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture (Cambria Press) by Wendy Larson in Issue 17.1 of Film International.