By Liam Lacey
This is a mostly black-and-white film, save for coloured flesh tones and rivulets of blood. Shot through transparent silver patterned screens, ebony rocks and swirling rain-soggy skies, it is it a film designed to wash the weariness from your eyeballs.
Zhang’s reputation as a world-renowned film artist peaked early, starting with Red Sorghum (1987) and a series of historical dramas, starring the great Gong Li. His best-known films of the past 20 years have been more showy than profound. But for the sheer pleasure of images, Shadow, earns a high place in his filmography.
Specifically, it’s an important return to form after Yimou’s misguided Matt Damon monster movie, The Great Wall (2016). Stylistically, it’s of a piece with his intensely colourful war dramas, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but even more visually daring. The hyper-stylized look falls in that area between live action and graphic novel, like Dick Tracy or Sin City, but with a good deal more elegance than either.
The movie, inspired by a 14th century novel called Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is set in the second and third century during the third-century “Three Kingdoms” era. Plotwise, it’s a jumble of body doubles, and, an allegory about the power of duality.
In the Pei Kingdom, a weak king (Zheng Kai) has compromised with his enemies in a one-sided peace treaty that gives away the prized city of Jing. His wily top general Commander Yu (Deng Chao), wants to go to war to get the city back.
The cowardly king would prefer appeasement, ensuring the peace by handing over his sister (Guan Xiaotong) to the enemy king’s son as a bride. But Yu has a different, more honourable plan. He challenges the enemy’s top fighter, General Yang, to a duel, with the winner taking control of the disputed city.
There’s a catch. The last time the two fought, Yu was severely injured with a wound from which he has never properly healed. Instead of fighting himself, he plans to use a young peasant doppleganger (also played by Deng Chao) named (Jing after the disputed city), who he has trained to be his “shadow.”
Not even the King knows the difference. While the sickly Yu hides in the underground chambers of the palace, Jing, in collusion with Yu’s musician wife, Madam (Sun Li) takes the commander’s place in court.
Not entirely surprisingly, Madam comes to prefer this younger, healthier version of her husband, although she and Commander Yu still make intensely passionate music together. That’s literally the case in a zither duet that ripples and hits crashing crescendos like a heavy-metal shredding contest (the score is by Lao Zai, aka Loudboy).
Madam is the one who comes up with a clue to how to successfully fight the apparently indomitable General Yang, throwing a little flexible feminine yin to his spear-driving masculine yang.
The culmination of this strategy is an astonishing scene of an army of parasol-carrying soldiers (though their parasols double as shields and weapons, and consist of a circle of razor-edged metal blades that turn into flying circular saws).
The parasols have another purpose – protection from the ever-present rain in the film. Here, Shadow ties into its central theme of duality (water is another feminine symbol of flexible strength) of beauty and violence, elegance and terror.
While the thematic scheme may be ancient and remote, Zhang’s poetic compression and technical pizazz feel as fresh as a splash in a mountain stream.
Shadow. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Li Wei, Zhang Yimou, based on the screenplay "Three Kingdoms: Jingzhou" by Zhu Sujin. Starring: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong. Shadow can be seen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.