A rival kingdom has captured Pei’s city Jingzhou. While the cowardly Pei king (Zheng Kai) vaccilates, his commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) urges immediate action. Ignoring the king’s wishes, Ziyu negotiates a duel with enemy General Yang (Hu Jun) – the winner of which will claim Jingzhou for their own nation. Ziyu, however, is not himself, and his true motives represent a terrible secret.
After playing with both small-scale drama (Coming Home) and Hollywood blockbusters (The Great Wall), the legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou returns to the territory that sealed his global reputation: the period epic. For fans of his earlier hits Hero and House of Flying Daggers it is a welcome return to form. For any viewers unfamiliar with his extensive back catalogue of films it is a perfect place to start: this is a hugely impressive piece of work.
Perhaps the greatest surprise in Shadow is its lack of colour. For a director rightfully renowned for his sumptuous use of colours, Shadow is practically done in monochrome. A high contrast black and white presentation makes everything look like a traditional ink painting. It creates a deliberate sense of artificiality, but also one of striking beauty. The stylised presentation lends itself to the heightened and precise nature of the narrative. There is not a hair out of place, and not a single camera angle that has not been precisely detailed, sculpted or transformed by digital effects.
Ziyu’s secret (while revealed early, stop reading now if you want to remain completely unspoiled) is that he is not Ziyu at all. The real commander was mortally wounded in an earlier battle with Yang, and now hides in secret beneath the palace while he works his own agenda. The public face of Ziyu is really a man named Jingzhou, taken from his mother in Jingzhou at an early age and raised to perform as Ziyu’s decoy. The truth allows for a masterful dual performance by Deng Chao: playing Jingzhou with a finely tuned combination of honour and uncertainty, and Ziyu with a sharpened and bitter sense of rage. So different in manner are his two characters that one could consider they were played by different people. It is no exaggeration to claim Deng’s performance is what makes Shadow succeed. He is richly supported by a strong cast, notably Sun Li as Ziyu’s tormented wife Xiao Ai – who knows his secret and must willingly play along – and Zheng Kai as a wonderfully petulant and childish King of Pei.
The action is carefully choreographed to maximum visual effect. Shadow is a rare beauty of a film, boasting a powerful lyricism – and even a mild sense of eroticism – in some of its martial arts sequences. While courtly scenes are dominated by dialogue, Zhang finds a balance between the talk and the action. The plot is intricate, and dominated by back story, but while complex the narrative never feels too complicated. Every few years a wuxia picture comes out of the Chinese film industry that demands international attention, and stands above its contemporaries as a real work of art. For now, Shadow is without a doubt that film – it is a creative and aesthetic masterpiece.