English Title: Shadow
Original Title: Ying 影
Country: China, Hong Kong
Genre: Action, Drama, War
Director: Zhang Yimou 张艺谋
Writers: Zhang Yimou 张艺谋, Li Wei 李威
based on the novel by Zhu Sujin 朱苏进
Music: Loudboy 捞仔
Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding 赵小丁
Editor: Zhou Xiaolin 周肖林
Deng Chao 邓超
Sun Li 孙俪
Ryan Zheng 郑恺
Wang Qianyuan 王千源
Wang Jingchun 王景春
Hu Jun 胡军
Guan Xiaotong 关晓彤
Leo Wu 吴磊
Feng Bai 封柏
At the age of 67, Zhang Yimou, the doyen of Chinese cinema, doesn’t show any sign of slowing down, SHADOW is his 21st feature film, and its follow-up ONE SECOND is already in the can (although is pulled from Berlin’s main competition in the eleventh hour earlier this year presumably due to censorship).
Set in an unspecified ancient era, SHADOW begins and ends with the same scene, Xiao Ai (Sun Li), the wife of Pei kingdom’s commander, peering with stark consternation through a crack of the door, what does she see? Zhang never reveals, it is a lingering question in this graphitic period drama suffused with cursive calligraphy, courtyard intrigues and bloody face-offs, all soused in unrelieved rain and its muted palette.
Back to the off, the commander Zi Yu, who has been critically wounded at the hands of Yang Cang (Hu Jun), the general of the coterminous Yan kingdom, during a previous battle, has to deploy a “shadow”, his doppelgänger Jin Zhou (both played by Deng Chao with striking physical transmogrification and versatility) who has been trained since childhood to protect his superior lookalike in danger times, to impersonate and supersede him in the court, with only Xiao Ai in the knowing, lest Pei Liang (Ryan Zheng, a standout in his stately pomp and lethal fickleness), the young emperor of Pei, suspects that his ambitious, clandestinely usurping-planning commander is not at all in fine fettle.
By ostensibly arranging a mano-a-mano rematch between Yang Cang and him (with Jin Zhou as the double and the corny underdog designation), Zi Yu’s grand scheme is to plot a coup de main, through a contingent of effeminate convicts (a ludicrous yin/yang balancing which is facilely construed by him, to outsmart Yang’s garrisons), lead by the macho general Tian Zhan (Wang Qianyuan), to seize the annexed city of Jin Zhou (where our namesake shadow hails from) guarded by Yang Cang and his son Yang Ping (Leo Wu), so that he could earn his repute and support from the people of Pei to dethrone a subservient Pei Liang, who even assents to marry his younger sister, princess Qing Ping (Guan Xiaotong, gratingly bratty) to Yang Ping as a concubine, in order to maintain the truce.
While a none-too-original leitmotif takes shape in Jin Zhou’s oscillation between his abject affection towards Xiao Ai, reciprocated by the latter during the night before his kamikaze duel, and his loyalty towards Zi Yu, who promises to release him from servitude and allows him to reunite with his elderly mother once he betters Yang Cang in the combat, unsurprisingly, it is multiply duplicity and double-crossing prevails in the wuxia world (the unvaried coup de maître thrashes/stabs when you catch your enemy unawares), and what happens between the ultimate victor and a bevy of courtiers lead by the loyal Tian Zhan witnessed in the eyes of Xiao Ai? Zhang cunningly leaves it to materialize in every spectator’s own mind’s eye with varied versions, complying with the import of lacuna in oriental philosophy and art works, by the same token, several loose lends are knowingly left unstated (e.g., who kills Jin Zhou’s mother?).
On the eye level, Zhang conspicuously discards his go-to luminous chromatic choices (as in HERO 2002, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS 2004 and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER 2006), instead plumps for a fetching monochrome, combined with innovative fighting sequences, far-east wash-drawing landscape and a soaring cadenza of Chinese zither (gu zheng), SHADOW eloquently broadens Zhang’s aesthetic perimeter and renders a trite power-seeking yarn an exotic allure that packs an intoxicating punch.