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Zhang Yimou Explores New Ideas in ‘Shadow’

Director honored at Venice with the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award

In “Shadow,” Chinese director Zhang Yimou is poised to reveal new layers of darkness, danger and brooding sensuality. Zhang says his film is a story of “struggle and survival,” faced by commoners and women in the face of greater power. These are themes that Zhang has approached from numerous angles over some three decades of work, while repeatedly expanding the horizons of contemporary Chinese filmmaking. Small wonder that Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera calls Zhang a pioneer and “one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema.” Zhang will receive the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award in Venice ahead of the out-of-competition screening of “Shadow” Sept. 6.

The logline says that the film is set during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 A.D.), and features an exiled king and his people, who develop a plot to regain control of their land. The events are told from the points of view of the king, his sister, his commander, the women trapped in the royal palace and a common citizen. But Zhang puts it more simply: “This is a film about a body double. I have always been interested in this subject. Despite the numerous period films released every year, no Chinese films have addressed it. Now I have the chance.” And the precise historical context has been blurred. “It’s no longer a Three Kingdoms story following my adaptation.”

Deng Chao (“Duckweed,” “Pancake Man”) plays both the master and the body double, two men with identical appearances, yet completely different personalities. One is a powerful noble, the other an ordinary man.

“Their fates constitute the central subject of this film,” says Zhang, though the roles of the female characters, in particular the commander’s wife, played by Betty Li Sun (“The Assassins,” “Painted Skin”) are also key.

“This film is about struggle, survival, dire predicaments and wild ambition — how a common man can manage not only to survive amidst the power games of kings and the aristocracy, but even to turn defeat into victory,” explains Zhang. That insight should be enough to get critics and analysts quickly salivating over contemporary political and social parallels.

But Zhang is careful to brush over such speculation by serving up a visual treat. “The visual style of ‘Shadow’ is inspired by the ink brush painting techniques of Chinese art. I have always wanted to experiment with this unique style of ink and wash effect. It looks particularly Chinese to me. The scenes with rain, especially, have a fluid texture that creates a unique ambience,” he says.

He recently completed his next pic — a treatise on filmmaking — and says he has ambitions in TV. “Long-form episodic TV allows for the telling of richer, fuller stories, and their great capacity provides a broader space in which characters can be created and developed, so I’ve always been interested in exploring this format. I’m working on the adaptation of a novel and, if the scripts turn out well, I may film it as a TV show.”

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