×

Film Review: ‘Shadow’

The near-monochrome images are the spectacular star of famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou's sumptuous return to form.

Director:
Zhang Yimou
With:
Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu. (Mandarin dialogue)

1 hour 56 minutes

Black ink drips from the tip of a brush and daggers into clear water, spiraling out like smoke; a Chinese zither sounds a ferocious, twanging note that warps and buckles in its sustain; rain mottles the sky to a heavy watercolor gray, forming pools on paving stones into which warriors bleed; whispery drafts from hidden palace chambers stir tendrils of hair and set the hems of luxuriant, patterned robes fluttering. Every supremely controlled stylistic element of Zhang Yimou’s breathtakingly beautiful “Shadow” is an echo of another, a motif repeated, a pattern recurring in a fractionally different way each time.

After 2014’s semi-autobiographical “Coming Home,” which had soul but little spectacle, and 2016’s “The Great Wall” — all spectacle and no soul — it seemed like the Himalayan peaks of the revered Fifth Generation filmmaker’s career (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,” “Red Sorghum,” “House of the Flying Daggers”) might now be behind him. But here, almost insouciantly and with little fanfare, comes “Shadow,” a thrilling return to form, which matches Zhang’s best work for the sheer voracious elegance of the images and possibly surpasses much of it for inventiveness. Most strikingly, in styling the locations and costumes almost entirely in black and white, but shooting (alongside regular DP Zhao Xiaoding) in color, Zhang, famous for his lantern reds, golden yellows and the soft, pretty pastels of “Flying Daggers,” gives the whole film a monochromatic sheen, highlighting only the skin tones of the characters and the dark crimson of the blood they spill.

Based on the fabled “Three Kingdoms” saga of Chinese legend (with China having such “a long historical past,” said Zhang in interview, “I wouldn’t create baseless stories”), “Shadow” is a knotty tale of palace intrigue, old grudges and crafty doppelgangers, that can take a minute to get a proper hold on. In the court of the Pei Kingdom, ruled by a seemingly petulant and cowardly King (Zheng Kai), the noble and brilliant Commander Yu (Deng Chao) counsels war against a powerful neighbor who has captured the strategically important city of Jingzhou. The King ignores his advice, preferring to sue for peace with the invaders and even offering them his beloved sister (Guan Xiaotong) in marriage to seal the craven alliance. Yu nonetheless arranges a one-to-one duel with the legendarily unbeatable spearsman General Yang (Hu Jun), the leader of the invading forces who inflicted a terrible wound on him the last time they met, to decide the fate of the city.

But the Commander is not who he seems to be: Really he is the low-born Jing, who was plucked from poverty as a child due to his resemblance to Yu, and trained to be his double, or “shadow.” The cunning but ailing Yu has gone into hiding in the palace’s secret chambers, and with the collusion of his resourceful wife Madam (Sun Li), Jing has taken his place at court, fooling everybody.

It’s an absorbingly epic yarn, and though often talky, there’s always something in restless motion — a beaded headdress or a capacious sleeve — making even convoluted, exposition-heavy sections feel visually dynamic. Really the story lives in its staging and shotmaking: It billows to life in the flooding liquid silks of Chen Minzheng’s sumptuous costuming, the enviable fabrics printed in an abstract, stained water motif (if Zhang ever thinks to launch a pret-à-porter line — and by all means let’s encourage that — he’s already got the designs in hand). And it thrums through Ma Kwong Wing’s amazing production design: The elaborate, monochrome interiors, full of secret spyholes and gauzy, blurring screens, and the permanently rainswept, slicked-down exteriors give the film the look of a graphic novel painstakingly drawn in classical Chinese ink-brush technique.

But there’s more than just beauty in this tall twisted tale of power plays and divided loyalties; there’s wit, too. Madam has grown closer to her husband’s surrogate and further from her husband, and while Jing duels for the fate of the city, she duets with Yu in a zither pas de deux, which is just as thrillingly adversarial (indeed, the flutes-and-lutes of Loudboy’s classical Chinese score are perfect accents to the action throughout). And when Madam has a stroke of inspiration about how to combat the enemy’s mighty, thrusting-spear technique that involves using a parasol as a shield and moving in a graceful, “feminine” sway, the technique is adopted by the Pei troops, though modified, so the umbrellas are now edged in sharp metal and send blades slicing through the air when twirled. During one particularly crazy sequence that should be credited to action sequence designer Dee Dee, a detachment of soldiers, each nested into an upturned umbrella, is catapulted, spinning like the teacups in Disneyland’s Mad Tea Party, down the waterslide of a rain-soaked city street: It may not be the most thematically weighty of art-house films, but the cinema of “Show me something I’ve never seen before, and make it heart-stoppingly beautiful” has in “Shadow” a new title for its pantheon.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Shadow'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition), Sept. 6, 2018. (Also in Toronto, Busan film festivals.) Running time: 116 MIN. (Original title: "Ying")

Production: (China) A Perfect Village Entertainment, Le Vision Pictures, Tencent Pictures production. (Int'l sales: Bloom, Los Angeles.) Producers: Ellen Eliasoph, Zhang Zhao, Pang Liwei, Liu Jun, Wang Xiaozhu. Executive producers: Lian Je, Zhang Zhao, Edward Cheng.

Crew: Director: Zhang Yimou. Screenplay: Li Wei, Zhang Yimou, based on the screenplay "Three Kingdoms: Jingzhou" by Zhu Sujin. Camera (color, widescreen): Zhao Xiaoding. Editor: Zhou Xiaolin. Music: Lao Zai (Loudboy).

With: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • The Jesus Rolls

    Rome Film Review: 'The Jesus Rolls'

    The Jesus lives! The oddball bowling obsessive immortalized by John Turturro in “The Big Lebowski” resurfaces two decades later in “The Jesus Rolls,” a road movie every bit as eccentric as the character he played in the 1998 cult favorite. In a way, the “Lebowski” connection does a disservice to Turturro’s film — an in-spirit [...]

  • Abominable

    Malaysia Orders Cuts to 'Abominable' Over Controversial Map Scene

    Malaysia has ordered cuts to the U.S.-Chinese animated feature “Abominable,” which includes a scene involving a map that portrays China’s contested territorial claims in the South China Sea. The map scene has already caused the film to be banned in Vietnam. The Philippines foreign minister Teodoro Locsin this week called for “Abominable” to be boycotted, [...]

  • Kung Fu Panda 3

    Universal's Beijing Resort to Partner With Alibaba on Digitization

    Amid fierce controversy about the leverage China has over U.S. entertainment firms with significant mainland operations, Universal Beijing Resort and Alibaba announced a strategic partnership Thursday to digitize the forthcoming theme park in China’s capital. Facial recognition and the use of big data will be the norm at the new resort, which will use an [...]

  • They Shall Not Grow Old restoration

    Peter Jackson Documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Nabs Limited China Release

    The Peter Jackson produced and directed World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will hit Chinese theaters on November 11. Though it will roll out nationwide, it will do so via the China’s National Arthouse Alliance, which has limited screens. The 2018 documentary puts together interviews with WWI veterans and more than 100-year-old [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    'Zombieland: Double Tap' Hopes to Recapture Raunchy Zombie Magic, 10 Years Later

    Audiences may have a few questions about the sequel to 2009’s hit “Zombieland,” which opens Friday. Why did it take 10 years to make a second one, after the first grossed $102.4 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, making it the third-biggest zombie movie of all time (second-biggest if you don’t count “Hotel Transylvania,” [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Accused of Firing VP Who Complained of Gender Pay Gap

    A former vice president at AMC Theatres filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the company of firing her after she complained that she was paid far less than her male peers. Tonya Mangels, who was vice president of product marketing, said that in March 2018 her supervisor inadvertently sent her a spreadsheet that included [...]

  • Sir Elton John poses for photographers

    Elton John Calls 'Lion King' Remake a 'Huge Disappointment'

    Elton John isn’t feeling the love for Disney’s latest live-action remake. In an interview with GQ U.K., the legendary musician criticized Disney’s remake of “The Lion King,” citing the film’s music as a “huge disappointment.” “The new version of The Lion King was a huge disappointment to me, because I believe they messed the music [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content