“And me? I’m nothing but a servant. Nothing more than his shadow.“Jingzhao, Shadow
Zhang Yimou’s recent epic, Shadow, is a monochromatic beauty. Although Yimou’s previous films, such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, are well known for their vivid use of colors, he opts to highlight only the character’s skin tone and a deep red for blood. This muted palette serves to emphasize the plot of the film- that of a man and his shadow, and it provides a humanity to the characters that may otherwise become lost. Although Shadow is certainly a visual spectacle, the overall quality is brought down by most of its cast and long-winded dialogue.
The film centers around three people: the cowardly King of Pei (Zheng Kai), Commander Ziyu, and his shadow, Jingzhou (both played by Deng Chao). In a scheme that has been years in the making, Commander Ziyu plans to use Jingzhou to take back the city and become king. Through a series of reveals, Zhang Yimou unveils Ziyu’s plans, cutting back and forth until the third act, when all the characters go head to head.
Through the first two acts, which consist mainly of dialogue meant to explain the plot, the viewer comes to expect a great deal for these characters. They are given heavy backstories, ones that are used to illicit either empathy or disgust from the audience. Though the third act is one of my favorite of Zhang Yimou’s, it also feels like a let down, with too much buildup and not enough of an ending. The use of monochrome is perhaps the most beautiful thing about this movie. It brings the characters to life in ways the dialogue could not and intensifies the reaction to the violence suffered by the characters, with the deep, wine reds in full display.
In typical Zhang Yimou style, the action is breathtaking. His ability to showcase Wixou as dance, symbiotic in nature, is a gift few have. He uses this dance, smooth to hint towards the feelings between Jing and Xiao and tense, to show the relationship between Ziyu and his shadow. A constant push and pull, it is these scenes that Zhang Yimou’s fans always have to look towards.
Zhao Xiaoding, the cinematographer, elevates the symbiotic nature of these characters, especially in the fight scenes. His use of the tai chi (yin yang) symbol is spectacular. His placement of the symbol in large, open spaces, with darkness blending into light towards the middle, serves to attract significance to whoever stands upon it. Brilliantly done, it emphasizes the relationship between Commander Ziyu and Jingzhou, as well as the two rival relationships of Jingzhou and Xiao Ai (Sun Li), Ziyu’s wife, and Jingzhou and Yang Cang (Hu Jun), Ziyu’s rival.
Shadow’s score is also phenomenal. It constantly fits the setting and tone of the story. The best example of this is during the last act, during the fight scene between Jingzhou and Yang Cang. The music starts off light as they are beginning the match. Towards the ending, it begins to crescendo – a moment between life and death, before it abruptly ends, signaling a sudden ending to a life. It is a beautiful moment, and Deng Chao’s facial expression is breathtaking. There are no shortage of beautiful moments, elevated by Lao Zai’s score.
A heavy dialogue is admittedly necessary for the viewer to understand the plot. However, it makes the film seem longer and almost sluggish in nature because of the actors. Though Deng Chao brilliantly portrays Jiangzhao and Commander Ziyu, along with an understated, yet beautiful performance from Sun Li as Xiao Ali, it is not enough to distract from the outlandish and, occasionally stilted performances of the other actors.
In the end, the quality of Shadow may not be as great as Zhang Yimou’s other films, but it still contains beautiful visuals, powerful actions scenes, and moving, raw performances from both of its leads. It feels worth watching again and is an outstanding achievement from Zhang Yimou.