A dying army commander, an indolent emperor, a man trapped in servitude and a plot to take back a kingdom’s lost territory. This is the core of the move Shadow, which sees director, Zhang Yimou, reuniting with his House of Flying Daggers cinematographer, Zhao Xiaoding, for another visually enticing, as well as intriguing, film. I’d read a lot of great things about this movie and when I saw that it was posted to LeTV’s official YouTube page, I had to watch it.
The film begins with the Emperor of Pei (Zheng Kai, The Great Wall) angered to discover that the Commander of his Army, Zi Yu (Deng Chao, The Mermaid), has gone to Jing City to meet with General Yang (Hu Jun, Ever Night), the man who helped take Jing City away from the Kingdom of Pei. He’s even more angered to discover that the Commander has challenged the General to a duel to win back Jing City, an action that basically amounts to declaring war, something the Emperor is desperate to avoid.
The Emperor is eager to maintain the peace with their neighbor. To avoid war, he strips Zi Yu of his command and sends a minister over to Jing City to offer up his sister, the Princess (Guan Xiao Tong, Sweet Combat), as a wife for the General’s son, Ping (Leo Wu, Battle Through the Heavens). Of course, to add insult to injury, Ping offers to take the Princess as one of his concubines instead. The members of his military, as well as the Princess, are angry with the Emperor for acquiescing so easily, while the ministers applaud their ruler for keeping the peace.
But Zi Yu has other plans and we quickly learn that the person everyone thought was Zi Yu is actually his “shadow”, a look-alike often used as decoys by high ranking officials to help thwart assassination attempts and intrigues. Zi Yu, having been injured by General Yang in a previous battle, is now aged and suffering from an illness, and he’s eager to get revenge via his doppelganger. Zi Yu’s shadow is a man name Jing Zhou (also played by Deng Chao) who, as a young child, was found by Zi Yu’s uncle to act as a double for his nephew. Zi Yu has promised Jing that once he helps complete his plan, he will be free to return to Jing City and find his mother.
Jing Zhou, besides missing his mother and feeling trapped in servitude, has also become fond of Zi Yu’s wife, Xiao Ai (played by Deng Chao’s real life wife, Sun Li, Empresses in the Palace). Xiao Ai, the only other person who knows about Jing Zhou, struggles between her love and devotion to her husband as well as her pity for the servant, who is also a much healthier and better looking version of her sick husband.
Zi Yu’s plan slowly becomes clear as he reveals his secrets to one of his former generals, Tian Zhan (Wang Qian Yuan, Tribes and Empires: Storm of Prophecy). He has secretly put together an army and devises a plan using umbrellas to help defeat General Yang’s army and win back Jing City. Zi Yu’s plan also includes him becoming the new Emperor and making Tian Zhan his Commander. As Jing Zhou finds himself in a deadly duel with the domineering General Yang, the secret army attacks the city, with the Princess joining them to pay back Ping for insulting her.
Visually the film looks beautiful with an almost entirely in black & white, with colour only used in limited places like skin tone, candle flames and blood. The set design also plays along with the theme of “shadow” with a lot of use of screens throughout the palace, hinting at the intrigue and hidden motives of the different characters. The film score uses traditional instead of modern music to help convey a lot of the underlying emotions of the characters
The story itself slowly builds up the tension as you begin to learn more about the four main characters, with some twists and turns eventually coming at the end, some more expected than others. And I like that they are able to introduce the political intrigue of the story without making it overly complicated so that it was easy to follow along.
Usually with actors like Guan Xiao Tong and Leo Wu on the cast, I’d expect some kind of secondary plot, but instead the story is well written with the secondary characters helping move the main plot along without complicating the story. The fight scenes are also creative as they take an innocuous item, an umbrella, and turn it into a deadly weapon.
This film has been a hit at film festivals and, since it’s officially on YouTube with subtitles, this is a good opportunity to see it, especially if you aren’t in an area that has Chinese movies in your local movie theatre.