Shadow is a film that fulfills generic expectations while simultaneously, inexplicably, seemingly defies them to create something wholly unique, or at the very least revolutionary in its ability to revise a genre. We saw this before with the widespread success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; a subtitled film which saw unprecedented success with Western audiences. Fittingly, Crouching Tiger was surpassed by Zhang Yimou’s Hero as the most profitable foreign film to be released in
(much of this success owed
to Lee’s film paving the way, as well as Quentin Tarantino’s name attached as a
seal of quality). Yimou’s career has rarely since met the same cultural
response, though he has had varied success with the critics. Shadow seems to
mark a return for both. America
Following a massive blockbuster (The Great Wall) in which he partnered with
Hollywood studios, Shadow is a return to form for Yimou, in many ways. In many ways,
but not all. Shadow is deceptively
similar to many of his most well-known historical epics, with an emphasis on
characters and their character (honor, motivation, sacrifice, nearly always on
display) which is meticulously paralleled in the semiotics of the production
design. Shadow is like this past work,
if also appearing to be a shadow film to Yimou’s mostly colorful filmography
(most prominently displayed in House of
Flying Daggers), by deciding to fill the production with almost entirely
black and white tones, despite being shot in full-color (a fact made apparent
by skin color and the inevitable spilling of blood). What these familiar
elements lull the audience into believing, is that this will conclude in the
fashion of a typical Yimou film, leaving them unprepared for the visceral
brutality of the final act.
With a plot that almost seems supernatural in its initial presentation, Shadow is often a disorientating film, which should make the cringe-worthy violence yet another curve ball among many in the narrative. The first is the introduction to our protagonist, the Commander (Deng Chao) to the King of Pei (Zhang Kai). Having been wounded by a general named Yang (Hu Jun) in battle, the Commander lost his king a nearby city. Determined to reclaim his honor and the city, the Commander sets a plan in place that is only revealed when we discover that the man we know as the Commander is actually an imposter, put in place by the real Commander, still wounded from his battle with Yang.
The Commander we know is actually a shadow, a double named Jing (also played by Chao) that has been trained since childhood for this very reason. Refusing to allow his decrepit body to signal his failure or defeat, the real Commander uses Jing as a puppet and a pawn in his master plan, which begins with a challenge to a rematch dual with Yang. Jing seems to know that he is a prisoner and walks toward his fate for two reasons: the promise of his ability to return to a long-lost mother living in the very city lost in competition, and because the shadow has fallen in love with the Commander’s wife (Sun Li), who he has been forced to treat as his own wife while in public. Thus, like any tragic hero, Jing’s destiny almost seems predetermined.
At its heart, Shadow is a spectacular primitive martial arts film, but intellectually it offers far more than just that. The premise of the film is mirrored by the significance of the title, and parallelisms/doubles begin to appear throughout the film. We are meant to look and compare more than just the two versions of the Commander, and more than simply the people themselves. It is displayed in two battle grounds modeled after the yin and yang symbols of Tai Chi, as well as the feminine weapons of umbrellas; they accept and disarm the blade, rather than merely penetrating, should there be any confusion as to the genderization of the weapons. In short, this movie is brutal to watch, but brilliant to analyze. That is a balance that few directors manage to find so effectively.
The Blu-ray release of Shadow is a bit more lacking than I had hoped, in terms of extras. There are two featurettes, labeled ‘Behind the Scenes’ and ‘Making of’ although these titles (and featurettes) are pretty interchangeable. While there is no commentary track or such, the film itself and its presentation is still most important. The Blu-ray presentation of this film certainly does not disappoint, though a 4K would be even better for those with the viewing capabilities (I wasn’t provided with a 4K copy from the studio, but can imagine this film would be spectacular). Solidifying his name in the wuxia genre and as a director seemingly unsurpassable in his grasp of a film’s visual style, Yimou has impressed yet again with Shadow. The Blu-ray release also comes with a DVD copy.
Entertainment Value: 8.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 9.5/10
Historical Significance: 8/10
Special Features: 5/10