One fact about me that might surprise people is I actually enjoy a good martial arts movie. While I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in the genre, I enjoy Jackie Chan movies like The Drunken Master, or other films like The Grandmaster or IP Man. I know these movies can be very violent but it’s so stylized and part of the choreography that it doesn’t bother me as much as other violence. The skill and craft that comes into making your body a weapon is beautiful and fascinating.
Naturally when I heard that director Zhang Yimou had a new film called Shadow, I knew I needed to see it as soon as I got the chance. Fortunately, it premiered today at the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City so I had to see it! It’s not the biggest screen in the world but it’s better than nothing! So I went to see Shadow today and to my relief the film lived up to the hype.
Shadow tells the story of an ancient land with 2 feuding kingdoms. One is ruled by a man named Pei (Zheng Kai) and the other by a man named Yang Cang (Hu Jun). They both have generals, sisters, wives and followers to muddy the waters and bring their kingdoms into conflict. Pei, in particular, has a general named Ziyu (Deng Chao) who we learn is actually a look alike named Jingzhou (also Deng Chao), with the actual Ziyu being hidden away in a cave. Jingzhou has been trained to be Ziyu’s shadow hence the name of the movie.
I won’t give any more spoilers but there’s magnificent training sequences that take place on a giant yin/yang symbol. The cinematography of the film is incredible with a monochromatic aesthetic where sometimes the only color you see is the bright red of the blood.
There is also a surprisingly effective love triangle between Jingzhou, Ziyu and his wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li). Most of this is done through looks and dialogue-free scenes that the actors pull off very well. In fact, it makes Shadow approachable for Western audiences because it’s all about the emotion more than the words spoken with each other. So if you are turned off by subtitles you might still want to give Shadow a try.
The martial arts fighting is like none I’ve ever seen before (except maybe in Kungfu Panda 2 oddly enough). They use a metal umbrella made of spears in their fighting and all of these circles help reinforce the theme of yin/yang and combined with the monochromatic cinematography are quite mesmerizing. Honestly Shadow is the closest to watching a modern Kurosawa film that I’ve recently seen. It’s quiet and contemplative like his films. It’s striking like his films, and it has Shakespearean themes like his films. If you are a fan of visually dazzling films with heart than you will leave the theater awestruck by it.
The only downside to Shadow is it can be uneven in its pacing. Particularly the first 30 minutes are a bit laborious. It gets too caught up in the diplomacy between Pei, Yang and Ziyu for its own good. Also it will take me a couple rounds to understand everything going on with the plot. Sometimes I decided to just enjoy the visuals because I wasn’t entirely clear on what was happening.
All that said, Shadow is a tremendous achievement for Zhang Yimou and a film I heartily recommend to film lovers and anyone who can tolerate a rather bloody martial arts action film. You won’t regret hunting this one down
8.5 out of 10