The past several years of action-adventure films have predominantly consisted of big-budget superhero epics, spy thrillers, and fast cars stopping global terrorist threats. It is almost hard to believe that the last decade of action-adventure films was driven by Wuxia, a genre of Chinese fiction focused on telling stories of martial artists and heroes in ancient China. Well, the legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou, best known for his award-winning Wuxia films Hero, starring Jet Li, and House of the Flying Dagger has returned to his roots with a magnificent epic. Shadow (Ying), premiering at the 75th Venice Film Festival and 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, serves as a great reminder that despite the director’s poorly received attempt at a substantial Chinese Blockbuster with his 2016 film, The Great Wall, Yimou is still one of the best visual storytellers alive.
The story of Shadow takes place in China’s Three Kingdom’s era centering on the feuding kingdoms of Yan and Pei who have an uneasy truce following a famous duel between the nations’ two greatest warriors: Commander Yu (Chao Deng), the hero of Pei City, and Yang (Jun Hu), Yan’s General. This fierce duel leads to Yan occupying one of Pei’s most famous cities. While the King of Pei (Ryan Zheng) is allowed to remain king and keep the peace as long as Pen doesn’t try to reclaim one of the renowned cities lost in the war, this peace is soon disturbed when Commander Yu challenges General Yang to a rematch, leading to political turmoil and potential bloodshed between the two kingdoms. To remain in Yan’s graces, King Pei plans to offer his younger sister Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong) to General Yang’s son Ping (Leo Wu).
Unbeknownst to the two kingdoms, Commander Yu suffered a crippling blow during his duel with General Yang, forcing him to use his Shadow Jingzhou known as Jing (also played by Chao Deng), a man adopted by Yu’s family at an early age to serve as Yu’s body double in times when Yu’s life might be in danger. Now, the Commander lives as the Shadow, plotting his revenge in a hidden cave while his double serves as a puppet to his schemes. To complicate matters, Yu’s wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li) develops romantic feelings for Jing.
Unlike Yimou’s past two critically acclaimed Wuxia films, Shadow’s color palette only consists of black, white, and mixes of grey with the people on screen and their blood being the single contrasting colors. The choice of colors represents the duality of Ying and Yang and the Chinese calligraphy-like style of the film. Thanks to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, editor Zhou Xiaolin, and costume designer Chen Minzheng, Shadow is arguably Yimou’s most visually stunning film to date.
The first act of Shadow is like an intricate chess match used to reveal the player’s motives and potential strategies to winning. Thus, there are moments of revelation moving the dangerous game forward, backed by heart-pounding moments created by the secrecy of the Shadow portraying General Yu fueling King Pei’s growing suspicion.
The second and third acts are what elevates Shadow into a grand epic as both action and storytelling blend together into what can only be called visual poetry. Even if you are well versed in action and Wuxia films, you have never seen anything like the battle that takes place in Shadow, featuring metal umbrellas, hand crossbows, and dazzling action choreography in the pounding rain.
While the film is visually stunning, Yimou’s Shadow falters due to its complex plot leading to a lengthy exposition by its characters, but the audience is richly rewarded with some of the best set pieces and action choreography that can only be rivaled by Yimou’s early work. This decade is close to an end, but Yimou helps close it with a Wuxia epic unlike any other that will surely be discussed years from now.
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