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Zhang Yimou’s latest historical drama evocatively captures the chaos and majesty of early China while maintaining the spirit of his earlier films Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) against the backdrop of the chaos caused by battles between the Wei, Shu and Wu dynasties.
At the core is a “shadow”, a man taking the place of his master. Fearsome warrior Commander Yu is close to death. Standing in for him is Jing, a man who looks exactly the same and has been raised for this very purpose. Taking on both roles in spectacular fashion is Chao Deng.
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Those looking for frenetic martial arts action may find themselves disappointed by the slower pacing here, but the pay-off is well worth the wait. We are invested in all the characters involved, from the adventure-seeking princess to the weak king who has more gumption than we initially give him credit for.
On the opposing side are a battle-hardened leader and his son. Their relationship is built on mutual respect, and although only shown in glimpses, we get a sense of their worthiness too. Much like Game of Thrones, we are given a number of candidates to root for and the jeopardy comes from knowing only one will ultimately reign at the end. This careful balance is also portrayed via the constant use of the Tai Chi diagram, better known outside of China as the ying-and-yang.
Although Zhang Yimou’s recent effort The Great Wall (2017) fell victim to ridicule for casting Matt Damon in the headline role of a film set in medieval China, the film itself was a rewarding, if muddled exercise in making a globally commercial Chinese movie. Initial fears that Damon was portraying a “white saviour” type character ultimately proved to be unfounded and the resulting film was an entertaining epic. The only problem was the lack of authenticity, something that the director exudes in his most outlandish period films.
Shadow is a visual treat from the off. The camera lingers just long enough on the vast sets to give you a sense of time and place, but maintains fluidity when used to elevate the bursts of violence. The creativity doesn’t stop with the look of the film either, the weaponry used throughout is inventively incorporated into the narrative. When the final assault on the House of Jing arrives, it is littered with jaw-dropping set-pieces and superb swordplay.
Shadow is a superb return to form for Yimou, who once again justifies his place as one of the most celebrated Chinese directors around.
Shadow will be screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival, and will be on general release later this year.