Sunday, August 18, 2019

"Shadow": review

Combining Shakespearean tragedy with "Game of Thrones"-level castle intrigue, 2018's "Shadow" (released in the West in 2019) is a period film with wuxia elements. While I had mixed feelings through parts of the film, I ultimately ended up liking it.

The story centers on two kingdoms that have an uneasy alliance: Pei and Yan. These two kingdoms joined together to defeat a third, unnamed enemy, and after that war was over, Yan was in possession of the Pei city of Jing (also called Jingzhou). The king of Pei (Zheng Kai), who only recently ascended to the throne after the untimely death of his father, rules the land while his younger sister (Guan Xiaotong) offers advice and criticism. The Pei kingdom's commander Ziyu (Deng Chao), referred to as "Commander" throughout the film, has returned to the Pei throne to tell the king that he and the Yan general, General Yang Cang (Hu Jun), have made a gentleman's agreement to have a one-on-one duel to determine who shall possess the city of Jing. The king is furious that this arrangement was made without his consent; ultimately, Commander is demoted to a mere commoner, but he still intends to honor the agreement to duel with General Yang. The Pei king thinks a duel could lead to war; he is much more intent on compromises that prolong the current fragile peace—even to the extent of marrying his sister off to General Yang's son, Yang Ping.

Meanwhile, we learn that Commander is not who he appears to be: the actual Commander Ziyu is the one who had dueled with General Yang Cang; the man posing as Commander right now is named Jing (also Deng Chao), after the Pei city currently in thrall to the Yan forces. The true Commander received a crippling blow during his duel with General Yang Cang; sickly and hiding in a cave for a year, he adopted Jing, who looks like the real Commander, and has trained him to be Ziyu's "shadow," an impostor to present the idea that Commander Ziyu has somehow recovered from the blow dealt him by General Yang, a martial artist whose family has never suffered defeat in single combat, always besting their opponents within three rounds. All of this is happening right under the Pei king's nose; the only other person in on the chicane is Commander Ziyu's wife, Xiao Ai (Sun Li; I think "Xiao Ai" translates as "young, beautiful woman"), who is slowly falling in love with Ziyu's shadow.

Plotting from his cave, the real Commander Ziyu has plans to retake the Pei kingdom from its current king, a young and paranoid man who seems more interested in partying and self-preservation than in actually ruling his people. Jing, for his part, has endured brutal training and austerity in order to serve a specific purpose in Ziyu's plot: to distract General Yang Cang when the time comes for Pei to try to retake the city of Jing by force. But just as the apparent Commander is not who he appears to be, the king of Pei is not as dissolute and gullible as he appears to be. "Shadow" begins at the very end—a fact we don't realize until we reach the near-end of the film. Without giving anything away, I can say that the story's conclusion hinges on the decision to be made by one crucial character, who could either ruin everything or preserve the Pei kingdom.

I've never been much of a fan of director Zhang Yimou's films. I watched "Hero" and found it visually stunning but annoyingly paced and outright ridiculous in certain places; "House of Flying Daggers" evoked an even more negative reaction in me: that movie was simply ludicrous, especially the knife-in-the-chest scene. I think Zhang's problem is that he places too much focus on the visuals and not enough focus on story elements like plot and character; this results in an "art for art's sake" vibe that severely detracts from whatever story he's trying to tell. I almost prefer the directness and austerity of Japanese cinematic storytelling to the unnecessary swirls and eddies of the Chinese version. When everything is frills and flourishes, you're left to wonder whether there's any narrative core.

For this reason, I'm happy to report that "Shadow" avoids Zhang's usual pitfalls and actually has a story that a Western viewer can latch on to. While there are some extremely silly visuals and sound effects (the latter of which occur pretty much every time a sword or dagger is yanked back out of a human body), as well as one or two unintentionally laughable moments, I could feel myself becoming more and more involved with the intrigue. Some of the twists at the end were predictable; some were not, and the movie ends on an ambiguous "The Lady or the Tiger" note that I actually found satisfying, not frustrating.

The one-on-one fighting in the film is extremely stylized; no one with any fighting experience would ever consider it plausible. That being said, the fighting is accompanied by philosophical dialogue that supports the logic of what we see on screen: to beat a yang style of combat, one needs to fight in a yin mode. When this yin style of fighting is taught to the troops, the results might produce a giggle or two, but the style nevertheless makes a certain dramatic sense.

Zhang's cinematography, his aesthetic sense, has always been spot-on; "Shadow" has great set design and camera work, and the idea of washing out all the colors except for flesh and blood strikes me as a good choice for his film, where so much is about light and dark and grey. "Shadow" is easily the best of the three Zhang Yimou films I've seen; as I said earlier, this is because the director chose, for once, to respect the importance of storytelling, which his visuals did not overwhelm. The story struck me as a concentrated dose of "Game of Thrones": fans of castle intrigue will love all the plotting and will enjoy how the movie eventually comes to a head. Most of the action sequences occur in the film's second half, but the story is good enough that I didn't see this as a problem. Overall, "Shadow" gets my recommendation as a movie worth the viewer's time.

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