Sometimes even the great ones make a misstep. Zhang Yimou’s misguided foray into Hollywood filmmaking wasn’t as bad as some others, but it was lousy nonetheless. The Great Wall may have had the primary color scheme of the auteur’s acclaimed Chinese dramas Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, but it lacked their graceful beauty and epic quality. Now Yimou is back in familiar territory, and yet doing something a little different, with historical thriller Shadow, and while not a complete return to form it’s a must-see for fans of his work and of royal intrigue.
Set in the third century during China’s Three Kingdoms period, this palace thriller stars Deng Chao in dual roles, both charismatic by necessity but one with an off-kilter edge. He plays General Yu, the military commander of the Pei kingdom, whose King (Zheng Kai) just wants to maintain peace, and his own power, by refusing to challenge the rival Yan family and their control of Jing City. But this does not stand with Yu, who unbeknownst to the King has grown frail and weak after years of battle. Publicly he has replaced himself with an exact duplicate, a “shadow” simply known as Jing (also played by Deng Chao), and set in motion a plan that will see Jing City returned to Yan once and for all.
It’s convoluted stuff, and like many of Yimou’s past films it takes a while to disentangle. There are schemes on top of schemes played out by only a handful of characters, and not all of it is as engrossing as stuff that goes down later. But there’s a balance to everything here, a yin and yang, which Yimou presents both narratively and visually. The King seeks peace through plotting and scheming, even taking steps that can be seen as cowardly. But Yu, who we are trained to view as the hero, manipulates events to foment a violent overthrow. Yimou keeps details at a minimum, often shocking us with the depths of their machinations. Nobody is quite how they appear to be, and they all prove themselves more than what their outward actions make them out to be. Through all of this the least interesting character to emerge is Jing, the only one not in complete control of his destiny for the majority of the film. It’s an unusual place for the protagonist to be, and Yimou doesn’t do enough to give him the same complexity as those around him. The minimizes the impact of a blistering final act in which Jing grows closer to achieving Yu’s plans in the midst of all-out war. We’re never able to properly ponder the point of a shadow without its host.
If the first half is about the slow process of laying groundwork, the second half is some of the most brutally intense action Yimou has ever pulled off. Gone are the literal flying daggers and soaring swordsman of his previous wuxia epics, in favor of something cold, metallic, and nasty. The fighting here is still balletic and gorgeous, with the jaw-dropper an inventive use of razor-sharp umbrellas that do much more than protect from the rain.
Yimou is in full control here, his directorial skills in total balance. The story he has laid out requires a lot of patience, but Shadow rewards with layered character work and stunning action sequences. While I hope Yimou doesn’t completely give up making movies here in America, it’s tough to dispute the heights he has reached in his home country.