Pei leaders want to reclaim Jing City, and that sets up an epic battle during China’s Three Kingdoms’ era, which was 220-280 AD. The weak and petty King Pei (Ryan Zheng) wants peace but it’s inevitable his forces must battle General Yang (Hu Jun). The beloved Commander (Deng Chao), his general, takes the reins. But he is hiding a secret – he’s a “Shadow,” a body double of the real guy whose health is failing (also Deng Chao), and they are fooling both enemies and the King. To succeed in an intricate plan for victory, will the real Commander reveal himself or will the commoner be exposed?
A stunningly gorgeous Chinese film, “Shadow” is an epic tale where the yin is used to fight the yang. Simply translated, this tale of honor, loyalty and duty moves with an elegance while it weaves a fascinating story of power struggles and palace intrigue.
With his customary artistry, director Yamou Zhang, who gave us the martial arts actioner “House of Flying Daggers,” returns to glorious wuxia action form that features not only dazzling duels but a beautiful stylistic look that is breathtaking. The black-and-white palette features streaks of blood to appear as the only color, with extraordinary work by cinematographer Ma Kwong Wing and production designer Zhao Xiaoding.
Wuxia action is Chinese fiction that uses martial artists’ adventures in ancient China. Zhang uses a taichi diagram as a battleground, and it’s a clever move for the impressive fight scenes, which are choreographed by action director Dee Dee (of “Kill Bill” fame) with a precision that surpasses nearly every American computer-generated action sequence of recent memory. The epic bloody battle is a cinematic marvel and the sequence where soldiers take their places for a surprise attack with an unconventional weapon is one of the best scenes of the year.
Cultural traditions are upended when the two main females, Madam (Li Sun), wife of the Commander, and Princess (Guan Xiaotong), sister to the King, appear outwardly demure but possess an inner strength and fierce determination to rival superhero warriors.
The screenplay, by Zhing and Wei Li, adapted from a screenplay by Zhu Sujin, takes a while to set up the ruse, but engages because the heroes and villains have some substance. It is a complex story, but the intrigue soon makes sense.
Deng Chao is convincing as both the commander and the commoner, and his chemistry with Li Sun is palpable (they are married in real life).
Scored with a minimalist composition by Lao Zai, also known as Loudboy, who uses only a zither and a flute, the music is one of the elements that adds to a satisfying cinematic venture that offers the best of both action and art worlds.
Director Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”) brings a political thriller to the silver screen.
Jing City is the central focus of the film. The forces trying to keep it (General Yang) and those trying to pry it out of his grasp King Pei.
However, within their political maneuverings stands Commander. Commander is an almost legendary warrior in King Pei’s employ, but Commander has a secret – he is actually Commander’s Shadow.
Since they were children, Commander has had a double to protect him from assassinations, now he uses his Shadow as a pawn in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Shadow has assumed Commanders place in King Pei’s court, is he moving against the King? He has challenged General Yang in a duel against the King’s will, is he moving against Yang? He has feelings for Madame, Commander’s wife, is he moving against his Commander or moving with Madame?
Zhang brings us a beautifully shot, gorgeously presented film. Although the setup is measured, the emotional buildup is perfect.
Gray tones set a mood of intrigue, deceit and death. Risk is the only common element that connects each character. As this drama unfolds, it slowly gains momentum to finish with an action flourish and a satisfying resolution.
The Yin fights the yang in this tale. The fight scenes and their related philosophy on battle is fascinating and structures the story to make the two main female characters as powerful and influential as the men – yet, in a subtle and intelligent way.
“Shadow” is an elegant, distinctive and memorable film of politics and power where lives become expendable as decisions fuel deceit.