As a sort of somber Shakespearean political melodrama, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow sometimes feels a bit too overplotted, with enough self restraint and looks of longing to make it feel claustrophobic, and so many schemes and betrayals that the script almost gets dazed among them. However, as a fantastical period piece — decked out in luscious trappings and painterly compositions, and bolstered by passionate performances and balletic battles with umbrellas made of blades — the experience fares better, resulting in a look at ancient intrigue that always manages to entertain one way or another.
A brief bit of opening text sets the stage for a precarious peace between two lands — the kingdom of Pei, and the kingdom of Yang, the latter of which currently occupies the city of Jing, much to Pei’s dismay. When the renowned Commander of Pei strikes a deal with Yang’s unbeatable warrior king to compete in a one-on-one duel for the fate of the city, he is rebuked by his own ruler, and stripped of his title, demoted to a mere commoner. However, it is secretly revealed that the man acting as the Commander is actually a lookalike named Jingzhou, captured in his youth and bound to serve as ‘shadow’ to the true Commander — who is still recovering from near-mortal wounds from a previous encounter — in case of threats to his life.
This sickly Commander confines himself to an underground cavern beneath the city, and relentlessly trains Jingzhou in order to uphold the subterfuge, even going so far as to give him similar scars. All the while, he plots to retake Jing and assume Pei’s throne, promising to free Jingzhou from his duty upon victory. Of course, this being a royal court, there are any number of Machiavellian conspirators, each setting wheels in motions that surely will collide. This includes a weaselly king, a fiery princess, a sniveling courtier, and the Commander’s wife, Xiao Ai, who plays along with her husband’s maneuvers, but may be falling for his more honorable ‘shadow.’
Those who casually wander into this inter-kingdom squabble will no doubt soon become as lost as these ancient civilizations themselves, but despite the gravity with which the various players detail their plans, the importance of what they’re saying is mostly smoke and mirrors; sure, the duplicity stacked upon duplicity is mildly diverting, but it’s also shallow and devoid of meaningful motivation; so do the myriad of machinations in Shadow really matter? Not when there are plenty of other things to hold one’s interest.
Chiefly among those elements is the sumptuous look of every frame. Working with a relatively small canvas, director Zhang Yimou has carefully composed grandiose images filled with nuanced staging, deliberate movement, and indelibly rich texture. His choices give otherwise modest engagements an epic feel, and not just in moments where swords are flashed. Conversations become mini-wars in themselves, as he zeroes his camera in on the meticulous exchanges between the main players of his power game, their precisely worded responses and subtle facial expressions acting out aggressive thrusts and parries in word form, often cutting just as deep as any knife.
One need not understand the spoken particulars to get the general idea, and Shadow actually communicates better through the clarity of its visuals. Each guarded step or confident tilt of the head feels deliberately choreographed, as if part of deadly dance. And instead of overloading the screen with period detail, sets are clean, populated only with objects of significance. This laser focus allows for minute aspects that otherwise may have been overlooked in clutter to factor prominently, especially when Zhang Yimou holds his shots so patiently.
And it must have easy for him to do so with a cast as magnetic as this. Deng Chao does double duty as the Commander and Jingzhou, but creates characters so disparate that you’d be forgiven for thinking they bear no resemblance whatsoever. He manages bitter and reptilian just as easy as dutiful and courageous, showing how life has affected these two men, tied together by a facade, in vastly different ways. Sun Li as Xiao Ai nobly hides her torn affections behind expressive eyes that should reveal more than they do; everyone is playing the game. Zheng Kai and Guan Xiaotong round things out nicely as the deceitful king and his more straightforward, honest sister, who challenges any threats to honor.
They are eminently watchable, completely up to the task of holding down the fort even when besieged by layers of backstabbing that would require a more talented contortionist than the script is capable of. That’s Shadow itself; from one-on-one political maneuvers to an entertainingly inventive battle involving hundreds, there is almost always something splendid to soak in, even if it makes your head spin.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 25th as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. Shadow is now available in Canada on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.