Zhang Yimou’s latest film “Shadow” is a moody but compelling period drama packed with distinctive style and atmosphere to be savored. When it was quietly released in South Korea around the end of last year, I and many other audiences overlooked it because it looked like another run-of-the-mill Chinese epic period drama, but I belatedly found that it is a noteworthy work showing a master filmmaker back in his element, and I regretted for not watching it at a big movie theater at that time.
Set in a fictional background loosely based on the 3rd century Chinese history, the story of the movie mainly revolves around a complicated relationship between Commander Ziyu and his body double Jingzhou, both of whom are played Deng Chao. Since he was very young, Jingzhou has dutifully served Commander Ziyu as his ‘shadow’ although he was not particularly treated well by his master, but things recently become pretty hard and difficult for him when Commander Ziyu happens to be incapacitated due to his duel with Commander Yang (Hu Jun), a powerful opponent to King Peiliang (King Peiliang). Now Commander Ziyu has to hide in a cave where Jingzhou has been caged, and Jingzhou must pretend to be his master far more than before.
With the help from Commander Ziyu’s loyal wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li), Jingzhou maintains his disguise pretty well in front of King Peiliang and many others in the royal court, but it is always possible that his true identity can be exposed at any point. When he is ordered to play music along with his master’s wife, he naturally finds himself in a very tricky situation, but then he makes a bold move, and that eventually saves not only himself but also his master’s wife.
Meanwhile, it gradually turns out that Commander Ziyu is planning something behind his back. Although he is officially dismissed from his position by the king because of his duel with Commander Yang, he still has some followers willing to serve him just like Jingzhous, and we are not so surprised to see that the ultimate goal of his plan is none other than the king’s throne.
The crucial part of Commander Ziyu’s plan is the upcoming duel between his double and Commander Yang, so we get several training scenes unfolded inside that cave. Although it seems there is no possible way for Jingzhous to defeat Commander Yang, he and his master eventually come to find a rather ingenious fighting method, and he becomes more determined as he is promised that he will be free once his master gets what he wants in the end.
However, of course, the circumstance becomes quite more complicated as King Peiliang also has his own plan behind his back. Although he is less brave and confident that Commander Ziyu or Jingzhou, the king turns out to be a pretty wily guy ready to do anything to preserve his royal position, and he does not hesitate at all when it looks like he has to give away his sister Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong) to Commander Yang’s son in exchange for a new peace treaty between him and Commander Yang.
And Jingzhou and Xiao Ai come to discover that they care about each other more than they are willing to admit. Well aware of how expendable Jingzhou is, she cannot help but feel sorry for him, and Jingzhou reveals his longtime affection toward her when they happen to be alone in the bedroom for her and her husband at one night. Although they are not supposed to sleep together, the mutual affection between them keeps growing, and there eventually comes a moment when she decides to cross the line despite what may happen because of that.
While never overlooking the dynamic interactions among its main characters, the movie steadily builds up its narrative momentum along the plot, and Zhang serves us a bunch of impressive visual moments to behold. Frequently drenched in rain and cloud, the movie adamantly maintains its stoic black and white color scheme from the beginning to the end, but Zhang finds a way to generate the sense of awe and beauty via his seemingly limited color scheme, and the result is as gorgeous as his more colorful films such as “Hero” (2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (2004).
Of course, the movie eventually reaches to a climactic battle sequence as expected, but Zhang wisely keeps things under control and restraint. Although you may be disappointed with the rather modest scale of its climactic battle sequence, it is both effective and inventive enough to hold your attention, and you will also come to care about what is being at stake for its main characters. While many of them are familiar archetype characters, they are imbued with life and personality at least, and the movie never loses the human dimension of its story as finally reaching to the inevitable closing scene where most of its main character have to face the consequences of their actions in one way or another.
Since “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “To Live” (1994), Zhang Yimou has been one of the most prominent Chinese filmmakers for many years, but he recently disappointed and depressed us with several misfires such as “The Flowers of War” (2012) and “The Great Wall” (2016). Along with “Coming Home” (2014), “Shadow” assures us that he does not lose any of his skill and talent yet, and I am looking forward to seeing him rising up further with more good films to be appreciated.