As I have stated many times before in the past, wuxia is a preterit genre in my book, particularly because HK cinema and particularly Shaw Brothers have exhausted it in every way possible. Occasionally, efforts to reinvigorate it appear, with films like Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Zhang’s own “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin”. And although these films have succeeded in this regard (not in the same degree), I feel that no one has managed to shoot a wuxia that encompasses all the traditional elements of the category but also manages to be quite contemporary. Until I watched “Shadow”.
Years ago, the kingdom of Pei lost the important city of Jingzhou to the kingdom of Yang after the popular Commander Ziyu lost a duel to the infamously unbeatable Yang Cang. At the time the movie begins, the two kingdoms have enjoyed a period of peace for many years, but according to public opinion, the reason for this lies with the cowardice the King of Pei has been showing. The same, however, does not apply to Commander Ziyu, who desires revenge and is willing to go to extremes to force the king on a war with Yang. His almost fatal wound, however, has him planning his revenge from the shadows with the help of his wife, Xiao Ai. In a plan he has been preparing for years, he has inserted a man named Jingzhou in his place, a “shadow” that has been training since childhood to take his master’s place, particularly due to his uncanny resemblance with him. Ziyu’s plan eventually starts unfolding, but a number of unexpected factors take it to paths unforeseen by everyone involved.
Zhang Yimou directs a wuxia that follows the “other rules” of the genre, as dictated by King Hu, particularly in films like “A Touch of Zen” and “Dragon Inn”. Firstly, the script does not exist solely to provide a background for the action, but is elaborately written and includes interwoven stories, conspiracies, treacheries, and in-depth analysis of the characters and the circumstances of the era.
Secondly, symbolism takes a large part of the narrative, with the clash between dark and light, male and feminine, and most of all, yin and yang being eloquently presented, with the characters and their actions actually moving on this antithetical part. This aspect, of the symbolic but also substantial clash and antithesis is portrayed excellently in the two roles Deng Chao has, as Ziyu and Jingzhou. The antithesis, which eventually leads to an inevitable clash, is at its most obvious here, as Ziyu lives and acts in the “dark” and Jingzhou in the light, as Ziyu is perceived as an actual person and Jingzhou as just his shadow, as Ziyu has his past glory in his favor but a dark future due to his injury, and Jingzhou the future in his. Lastly, the fact that the same actor plays both these parts also adds to this concept, on a whole other level.
The exquisite visual style facilitates this aspect in the most impressive fashion, with Xiaoding Zhou’s monochromatic base coming in direct antithesis with the splashes of blood and the occasionally intensely lit faces of the protagonists, in a tactic that allows the audience to focus on what is happening on the foreground, but also to marvel on the background. Particularly the floor painted with the Ying and Yang symbol, the way water and the rain are presented. and the umbrellas that are used as weapons are bound to stay on the mind of the spectator for quite some time. This aspect also forms the “third rule” since the combination of the cinematography with the elaborateness of Horace Ma’s production design is obvious in both the impressively minimalistic interiors and the more maximalist exterior shots (in contrast to the similar productions by Shaw Brothers, that focused on the depiction of the interiors but ignored the outside).
Fourthly, the rich context and the multileveled story do not mean that the action part is neglected in any way. On the contrary, the visuals of the movie seem to find their apogee here, along with the astonishing action choreography of Huen Chiu Ku and the great editing of Xiaolin Zhou, which result in a number of action scenes that could be easily counted among the best ever to appear in the genre. Particularly the war sequence, which unfolds in a number of fronts where spears fight umbrellas, highlights both the aforementioned elements, and Zhang’s directorial abilities, particularly his skill in directing action scenes featuring both one-on-ones and plethora of characters at the same time.
In an additional element, outside of the aforementioned rules, “Shadow” also unfolds much like a Greek tragedy, particularly after a point, although the catharsis never actually appears on screen, that seems to strengthen the narrative even more, since the hyperbole usually associated with the genre is the one that takes its place.
The acting in the film is also on a very high level. Zheng Kai as the coward, occasionally malevolent King of Pei is quite convincing in a role that becomes more and more dramatic as the story unfolds. Sun Li as Xiao Ai is impressive as one of the catalysts of the story and a woman who has to deal with a number of contradictory sentiments she does not dare reveal to anyone. In general, all the cast perform their parts with a very fitting theatricality, which, with the combination of Loudboy’s mostly traditional music, results in a number of scenes that unfold much like a Chinese opera, in another impressive aspect of the film.
Not much more to say, “Shadow” is one of the greatest wuxia films of all time, an audiovisual poem and overall, a true masterpiece.