LFF 2018: Shadow Review
The Three Kingdom Era of China is the chosen setting for Zhang Yimou’s latest martial arts-thriller, Shadow [Ying]. The bloodiness of this period and its divided provinces, however, may just be the only true things about this film. Using solely blacks, whites and greys within his frame, Yimou immediately asserts the film's genre and tone. It doesn’t take long to move through the hints of low fantasy and melodrama expected of any martial arts film into the fiercely sensational. In the opening ten minutes alone we see that after learning of The Commander’s intention to fight Yang, the usurping leader of the Jing province, The King collapses onto the floor, weeping like a petulant child. Yet we're supposed to believe he has some ingenious plot.
This King-devastating information acts of the catalyst for the rest of the film. But, as suggested by the title, there is something else in the works. The 'shadow' comes in the somewhat convoluted narrative device of Jing (the assured Chao Deng). Jing takes the place of The Commander after he is wounded by Yang in an attempt to re-capture Jing (the province this time) due to the fact he is his exact double - thanks to some exceptional effects that allow for a breathtaking example of dual roles that should surely set a new precedent. As the King sets up his own game to re-take the lost province, Jing and The Commander are accompanied by their now shared wife (Li Sun) in their own shadowy plots.
Despite the visual beauty of cloaking the film in a muted greyscale, you do find yourself asking what the purpose is, beyond underlining the themes of opposition in the political war? Within the King’s courtroom his court members’ costumes alternate between a dirtied white, like that of their ruler, and a deeper charcoal colour, mirroring Captain Tian’s (Qianyuan Wang), a soldier whose belief in justice outweighs that of his belief in the King. The costumes of the soldiers in Jing copy that of their own leader, Yang - black and heavy, their weighty armour contrasting against the Kingsmen’s pale billowing robes.
After a momentary glimpse of red blood at the films beginning, it is another hour before a hint of faded green intrudes the colour scheme with the far-reaching bamboo branches of the forest. It is a slight misstep on their part, as not long after this does the screen fill with gushes of blood. A sight so arresting following the polished greyness of the film up until now. However, the purpose of this colouring is far simpler; this exquisitely painted grey world is Yimou stretching out his artistic fingers, swapping the bright and bold for the somber and subtle. It’s designed to look beautiful, and to that end it is impeccable.
Yet the story is painted in such broad strokes, a work of art that is already close to completion and subsequently drawing out much of the audience’s intrigue and replacing it with near-confusion. The film continually attempts to raise the stakes for our leading man which never quite works. A structure will eventually topple when there are no foundations for it to stand on, and fall this does.