Films are a form of visual storytelling. Filmmakers use pictures, colours, motions, to convey emotions to essentially, tell a story. However, nowadays, it feels as if the visuals have been detached from the storytelling; films are more visually striking than ever, but the story is condemned to flat two shots where people just spew exposition. Sometimes, there is an odd film that is a perfect amalgamation of visuals and storytelling.
In the kingdom of Pei, the commander tries to keep the nation together under the rule of a young and cowardly king. Due to his grave injury in battle against the commander of another king, he has used a decoy or “shadow” to do his biddings at the king’s court. And after almost going insane in his self-inflicted exile, he plots to usurp the cowardly king. Shadow is first and foremost, a story of political intrigue. Scheming, plotting, backstabbing, figuratively and literally. Nothing is black or white in this court. Every player in this political game is operating in a sort of moral grey zone. Nobody really means what they say, or say what they want to say, and just like the kingdom of Pei, steeped in perpetual rainclouds that diffuse the sunlight to make everything feel and look very pale, the king is stuck in an arrested development because of his reluctant stance to confront his adversaries.
While the actual story can feel rather convoluted at times, it never goes as far as incoherent or confusing. The first half of Shadow is a warm-up exercise for the juicy second half, where the setup leads to the classic final battle. A more straightforward ending. This is where audiences are treated to some absolutely gorgeous action scenes. Zhang Yimou is most known in the west for Hero and House of Flying Daggers. While there is less of the breathtaking action from the two aforementioned films, beauty does not escape the eye in Shadow. The film is shot in colour, obviously, but the set and costume design combined well together to create a desaturated feel. No doubt, colour grading had to have been involved, yet the film’s greatest effects come from the costumes and sets. Every character wears shades of grey, or white flowing materials, stained with black to create an almost clouded effect. All of the sets are in dark grey or just bleak wood and the lighting is soft and pale. Big open areas divided into rooms by shoji, typical Japanese-styled sliding doors. In almost every room, wind from outside is let in to make the flowing cloths resemble clouds even more. Dream-like.
Every aspect of the film creates a mood of certainty. It reflects on the king’s inadequacies in taking control of his land. It reflects the inability of his court to point out his own recurring failures. Even without political experience, anyone can realize that this is not the right way to run a kingdom. The shoji, are covered in the king’s calligraphy, in which he professes his pride in the non-confrontational and almost subservience. Again, on the visual plane, this film does not fail.
Ultimately, Shadow falls victim to the old “style-over-substance” cliché. The plot is unnecessarily Byzantine, and there are some strange editing choices throughout the film that can cause some audiences to scratch their heads and wonder why. Some of the more interesting aspects of the story, like hidden unexplored love between the shadow and commander’s wife, gets pushed as a back burner because of the political intrigue.
Like its fellow wuxia films, Shadow puts American action films to shame by overruling the annoying erratic camera sequences. There is a certain grace in how Asian action sequences make audiences go wow, unlike the stuff coming out of Hollywood. CGI belongs to CGI. Let the audience actually feel the adrenaline and closeness of combat.
Strong performances from the main characters, by bringing some very over-the-top acting to the eventual meltdown, especially during the early stages. Perhaps that is how drama should be. Historical pieces are an important part of Chinese media. For a country with such a rich history, with a notorious past to say the least, Shadow is powerful not just for its sword-swinging and interwoven storylines. It is a sombre look at deceit and manipulations, all for personal gain, which leads to no clear victor. The film is like its 70-year-old director; old, yet contemporary. Strip away the fancy filmmaking tools to the film’s bare bones, and realize that Shadow is a page straight out of an old man’s diary. Put it all back together, is a film that can do both the technical aspect, and the visually pleasing panorama, where gloomy clouds mean more than just gloomy clouds. The greatest highlight of all, watching a bunch of soldiers swagger down a muddy bank encased in their weaponized umbrellas.