Zhang Yimou’s ‘Shadow’: An Elegant Merging of Wuxia and Film Noir

 Zhang Yimou’s latest movie Shadow opened in limited release across the US to very little fanfare. That’s too bad, because it’s well worth seeing.

This is a tale about court intrigue, betrayal and shadow doubles. Ziyi, the grievously injured military commander and war hero uses his double, a “shadow” to take his place in public when he challenges the military leader of the rival kingdom to a duel. The duel is a ruse to seize back a city held by rival kingdom without declaring a war the king doesn’t want. It’s part of Ziyi’s wider plot to unseat his own mad king and take over throne. Zhingzhou, Ziyi’s Shadow, has to find a way to win the duel. The king, however, is not as foolish as people think, and already suspects something is afoot. Meanwhile, both commander and shadow are in love with the former’s wife, who has to do her part in the plot and keep the king’s suspicions at bay.

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The commander hides in a cave under his mansion plotting while his shadow has to be his proxy in the outside world. Deng Chao plays both men as flipsides of the same coin – the commander is a dark, craven underworld creature with his injury. His shadow is a doomed pauper trained from childhood to be his exact double and decoy for would-be assassins. The story takes on shades of Film Noir where the shadow is a classic noir hero doomed to be the victim of powerful men and their plots. The commander’s wife, played by Sun Li (and married to Deng Chao in real life), takes the role of femme fatale as she tries to help both her husband and his shadow but feels pity for the latter. She knows he’s set up to die in her husband’s grand scheme, and she’s falling in love with him.

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The noir motif becomes literal in this movie. Zhang uses art direction and computer effects to drain the colours so everything is in black and white and shades of grey. Only faces and splashes of blood interrupt the black and white, and when the blood spills, it gushes. This story is a game of thrones, and the victims are aplenty. The pacing is austere, even glacial. Zhang wants the audience to think about the themes and the images. Instead of pulp, he wants to make an arthouse film out of a wuxia movie here. Maybe it’s a course correction after the commercial misstep of The Great Wall. That’s right, he also directed that movie, which nobody wanted or liked.

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Zhang Yimou is one of the premiere arthouse auteurs of Chinese Cinema. He emerged in the 1980s with other 5th Generation directors like Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. His films critiqued the oppressive structures of Chinese society and the men and women who fell victim to it. After dramas like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, he turned to Wuxia movies in the 2000s after the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, he has alternated between arthouse dramas and arthouse Wuxia movies ever since.

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Shadow seems designed to grab the attention of international film festival and arthouse movie critics. Nothing wrong with that, if you like pretty pictures and a slower pace. Wuxia movies and TV shows are old hat to Chinese audiences by now. They’re often cheesy and pulpy, and Zhang Yimou wants to kick it up here.  Shadow is a movie that wants to show you things you’ve never seen before.

Shadow is distributed by Well Go USA and is currently playing in select cinemas. It will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD on August 13th.