2018, NR, 116 min. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 17, 2019
In a fictionalized version of the historic Three Kingdoms of China, acclaimed and multifaceted filmmaker Zhang Yimou steps back into the realm of period martial arts drama to decide the fate of the city of Jing. After a brutal conflict, a fragile peace has been forged between the kingdoms of Yan and Pei. However, the young king of Pei (Zheng) finds his hand is being forced toward conflict by his commander Ziyu (Deng), who has challenged Yan's greatest swordsman, General Yang (Hu), to a duel – a de facto declaration of war. Except that Ziyu is not Ziyu: He is Jingzhou (Deng again, in an extraordinary double performance), an orphan rescued and raised by Ziyu's uncle as his duplicate, just in case his nephew ever needed to play some grand deception. If this seems like excessive forward planning, it's merely sensible preparation in a court that is ruled by intrigue and deception. Now the real Ziyu skulks, emaciated and poisoned by Yang's blade, and he must send Jingzhou to complete the task he could not.
The only person who knows of their deceit is Ziyu's wife, Xiao Ai (Sun), whose loyalty to her husband is never in question; however, with Jingzhou becoming everything Ziyu was, and with a compassionate streak her husband lacked, while the real commander spews toxic hatred in his secret caves under the castle, the identity of the recipient of that loyalty becomes more complicated.
No one is innocent here, but then no one is a cardboard villain, either: Zheng's king may initially seem like a feckless fop, but he's more of a pragmatist, dead set on defending the truce. Meanwhile his sister, Princess Qingping (Guan), goes from an innocent imprisoned by position to a reckless warmonger. Instead of bold archetypes, everyone is a shadow, as captured in the remarkable palette of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (and a vast team of effects artists) which strips all color away. The effect is to create a motion watercolor of black washes, interrupted only by the warm sepia of flesh and – in the inevitable, bloody denouement – the bright red of blood. It's a stark and purposeful contrast to the saturated color coding of another of Zhang's martial arts masterpieces, 2004's Hero; moreover, it's a far more subtle, delicate, and ultimately impressive use of computer effects than Zhang's attempt to make a Western-friendly blockbuster in monster mash The Great Wall, but it's also deployed in service of his wu xia masterwork. That may sound like a bold claim, but Shadow mixes the quiet intimacy of his character pieces like Raise the Red Lantern with the wire-fu of House of Flying Daggers. The spasmodic violence creates a stomach-churning counterbalance to the quiet palace intrigues, especially through the surgically placed classical Chinese score by Loudboy – much of it carried through duets by the commander and his wife on the guqin and guzheng (paired Chinese zithers), which becomes a subtle subplot in its own right. Through these tiny, textured components, and