Distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment. 2018. 1h 56min. Predominantly B&W. Directed by Yimou Zhang. Screenplay by Zhang and We Li. Music by Loudboy. Director of photographer – Xiaoding Zhao. Edited by Xiaolin Zhou. Design by Horace Ma. With: Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Want, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu.
“When I look back at the times I shot artistic movies, I found I learned quite a lot from them. So in the future, I hope to do both - make more personal films which I prefer; and in certain circumstances, I will shoot some other commercial movies like these two [HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS].” Zhang Yimou
This was Zhang Yimou’s feeling when I met him: somewhat ambivalent after he’d segued from ‘art films’ to ‘martial arts’ films. Even though his trilogy HERO (2002), HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004), and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006) were wonderfully drawn action pieces, I still missed his earlier more serious films like RAISE THE RED LANTERN and JOU DU, all starring his muse Gong Li. I sensed that either government pressure or financial pressures were responsible for his shift in genres.
But now here comes some good news: SHADOW is the film he envisioned back in 2006 – both ‘art film’ and ‘action film.’ It is a period piece, shot in B&W with hints of red – as in blood – judiciously sifted into the mix. The art direction and cinematography are rapturous in their detail, a hallmark of the director’s work. The first half hour is perhaps a tad talkie, and in this way it emulates the structure of Akira Kurosawa’s films, whose work Zhang acknowledges to be superior to any of the younger directors working today, including his own. Given that, which I don’t take as modesty, he is nonetheless one of cinema’s 4 or 5 current masters. [I’d put Almodovar on that list as well. And possibly Edgar Wright]
Warfare, battling kingdoms, deceptions in the courts, ‘shadow’ royalty substituting for the real thing – a kind of riff on THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, only it takes place 1500 years earlier. The young king (Ryan Zheng) though a good actor, comes across as smarmy and full of himself, engendering no sympathy. His sister (Qing Ping) is also unlikeable, but in her case, what a finish the director has given her. Pretty much everyone has been handed layered performances to deliver, and they all do. I particularly enjoyed Jun Hu‘s performance as an unbeaten older worrier.
There’s a documentary filmmaker listed in the voluminous end credits, and his several mini-makings-of sheds a little light on the areas…historical, the story, who is who, etc. They make the film more comprehensible on a second viewing. There is also a weapon used that I’ve never seen before. In one of the mini-docs it is suggested that the director created it. But I’m not sure. It is introduced early in the film in a benign form, and only later, in the third act, do we understand it’s lethal effect.