Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? SHADOW is the 2018 film by Zhang Yimou, the director best know to people like me for giving us HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. It’s his followup to THE GREAT WALL, the pretty silly but impressive international production that has a bad reputation in the U.S. for exceedingly stupid reasons (basically, a great Chinese director wanting to make a movie with Matt Damon was mischaracterized as whitewashing). SHADOW is another gorgeous and meticulous period martial arts epic. Though quieter and less action-oriented than the others I’ve listed here it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. One of those ones that crept up on me, slowly luring me in until I’m in awe of it by the end, and love it the more I think about it. I was lucky enough to see it theatrically, but waited for its arrival on Blu-Ray and DVD this week to finish my review so that more people would be able to check it out.

This is a movie that’s a little under two hours and builds to a large battle with some really cool weaponry gimmicks and that thing I love where they come up with a philosophy-based martial art to defeat the enemy. But that’s really the cherry on top – it’s mostly about palace shenanigans. It’s about the kingdom of Pei, who lost the city of Jingzhou to rival kingdom Yang when Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME, MERMAID) lost a duel to Yang Cang (Hu Jun, RED CLIFF, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, FIRESTORM). Most of the people of Pei are still sore about it, but King Peiliang (Zheng Kai, THE GREAT WALL) is a coward and just wants to forget about Jingzhou. So he gets pissed and, to the outrage of the military, strips Ziyu of his title when he finds out he challenged Yang Cang to a rematch.

This probly sounds complicated, but bear with me, because there’s more, and this is where it gets good. Ziyu goes from the palace into a secret cave where he meets with… wait a minute, what the– … Ziyu? It turns out that the real Ziyu who lost the duel was gravely wounded in the process, so he switched places with his “shadow,” a similar looking dude who had been raised from childhood to be his decoy when in danger. Like Saddam Hussein’s family had. Or Queen Amidala. So this is really the story of Jingzhou in sort of an undercover mission trying to pass as the Commander.

There are many complications. He needs to train to be even better than the real guy if he’s gonna win the rematch. And like Darkman in DARKMAN III: DIE DARKMAN DIE, he gets in an awkward spot where he’s pressured to play a musical instrument he doesn’t actually know how to play. The king is weird and cruel and, possibly suspecting he’s an impostor, enjoys putting him in torturous situations.

The only other person who knows his secret is Ziyu’s wife Madam Xiao Ai (Sun Li, FEARLESS, THE LOST BLADESMAN), who keeps having to come up with explanations for things on the fly. There’s obvious real attraction between the fake couple, which puts them in further danger. And both of them seem forced into Ziyu’s master plan of capturing both the city of Jingzhou and the crown. But if Jingzhou succeeds then Ziyu promises to finally release him to the mother he was stolen from as a child.

The story takes place during a seven day rain storm, so there’s little sunlight. We get the impressively detailed costuming, massive scenery and yes, some of the epic battle sequences that Zhang has become known for, but none of the bright colors. Through design (as opposed to SIN CITY style trickery) everything on screen is grey, white or black, except for flesh, blood or flames. During the battle there’s some brown bamboo. That’s about it. It’s a stunning look that fits the mythical nature of the story, because it resembles an ink wash highlighted with small blots of pigment.

I never felt impatient for it to get to the combat, but if I had, it would still be worth the wait. The most distinct action gimmick involves metal, bladed umbrellas that not only spin beautifully but are used to sled down a hill. And Jingzhou arrives for the duel on a giant floating bamboo platform on stilts. Both vehicle and arena. There’s also an army of convicts trained in umbrella techniques. And a really cool Trojan Horse type trick. A nice injection of THE GREAT WALL type pulp into something that’s less of a spectacle.

I sometimes hear that Chinese historical movies I like (including HERO) are government propaganda, and I feel like I don’t have a sophisticated enough understanding of them to get why. And they feel removed enough from reality that I don’t worry too much about it. But this one raised my eyebrows a little at the beginning because we have this jerky idiot king who’s trying to stick to a truce, and the noble commander and all the badass warriors who are so disgusted with him and are, through their seemingly upright and noble actions, trying to restart the war. I was prepared to enjoy the story anyway, but as soon as the real Ziyu is revealed, and his acting style as he explains his master plan is crazy-villain, it’s clear that there’s something more to it. By the end I felt like SHADOW was an indictment of this whole world of war and power, the world of men.

The poster above sums it up visually. Two men fighting, taking up the entirety of the yin and yang, while the woman has to stand off on the side looking pretty. The opening text frames this as the story of Madam, a character who is mostly passive and on the sidelines, yet manages to invent the entire fighting style and military strategy to defeat Yang and recapture Jing. She suggests and demonstrates the use of the umbrella as a feminine weapon vs. Yang’s masculine metal staff. And she does it standing on a giant yin yang symbol that causes the Commander to say Of course! I designed this tai chi diagram, why didn’t I think of it?

Yeah, sure buddy, you were right on the verge of coming up with that idea yourself, it pretty much counts as your idea. What a fluke that this lady happened to stumble upon it moments before you were gonna think of it.

The king’s sister, Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong, PAINTED SKIN: THE RESURRECTION) is another favorite character, the more reasonable presence in the court, always trying to talk the asshole king out of his stupid and crazy ideas, sometimes from behind a screen while he sits on the throne. When Ping tries to make peace by offering his sister as wife to Yang’s dipshit son Ping (Leo Wu, ASURA), and then when he accepts Ping’s counter-offer to make her a concubine, that’s the betrayal that pushes the princess over the edge, as well as one of the generals (Wang Qianyuan, THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN), who strips off his own armor in defiance. (This general’s reaction when the king attempts to kill him for it is a great moment in cinematic badassery.)

So one of the great thrills of the movie is when the princess slips in with the commander’s army so she can go find and kill Ping for the insult of asking for her as a concubine – an offer we find out he was not even serious about. I couldn’t help but think this was like a woman going to confront the online troll who sent her rape threats.

The shadow is the one who has to win this duel and execute this cool plan, he gets to be the glorious warrior hero. But it’s not his war. He’s an indentured servant, a victim, kidnapped as a child, subjected to what is described as brutal training, having to cut himself and infect the wound to imitate the near-fatal injury of his master. He’s just trying to do what he has to do for the small promise of being able to go back home and find out if his mom is still alive. So he’s the protagonist, the one we’re hoping will come out on top.

(ENDING SPOILER) And even this fuckin guy… he has a chance to walk out of there a hero, but he succumbs to the temptation of shenanigans and throne games and all that. The chance to really take the place of his power hungry slavemaster. And we’re left with Madam, standing at the door, having to decide whether to play along, or what the hell to do. Fuck.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 13th, 2019 at 11:31 am and is filed under Action, Drama, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “Shadow”

  1. This one I really want to see as soon as possible.

  2. This is a great looking film that I saw on the big screen. It’s what would happen if A24 made a martial arts movie.

  3. The Undefeated Gaul

    August 13th, 2019 at 3:34 pm

    I will watch this.

  4. Could’ve used some monsters like Yimou’s last movie but it’s kinda hard to complain with what he gave us here. The non-martial arts/Chinese movie it reminds me of the most is SHIN GODZILLA as it’s a combination of a surprisingly funny political story and a ‘lowly’ genre movie that I tend to prefer but both equally engrossing.

    Still would have been cool if Yimou threw in a ef-you to critics and had the movie end with Matt Damon’s character from GREAT WALL come in and save everyone. I would have taken Jing Tian as well.

  5. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    August 15th, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    This thing looked so good I would have happily watched it without subtitles, which is good because I was really confused most of the time. The doubling, the greyness, all the uniforms, intricate plotting and all that. I will definitely revisit it to try and understand it better.

    There are levels of propaganda in movies and, basically, the less blatant it gets the more it bothers me. Take, if you will, WOLF WARRIOR 2. Sure, it’s pro-PRC jingoism, but I was plenty into it regardless. I figure that if RAMBO 2 has been a lifelong favorite of mine despite the imperial butthurt in general and the POW/MIA cause being perhaps the dumbest (not worst or most immoral, just straight-up stupid) mass cause of my lifetime, then I should be able to enjoy cheesy Chinese popcorn bullshit as well; otherwise I’m endorsing the idea that our bullshit smells better than theirs. Stuff like this is just too silly, too openly childish to get worked up about.

    The IP MANs bothered me more exactly because take on the trappings of respectability. They have Oscar bait-like period detail and are “based on a true story.” (In my ideal world, no movie would ever claim to be history at all. You wanna make some inspired by an event or personage of the past, cool, just don’t front like it is has much to do with the truth.) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them, but I hate it when people cite IP MEN as exemplary martial arts films because they have a “real message” and aren’t “just fights.”

    As for Zhang Yimou, my problem is of the latter type. The first film I saw by him was RAISE THE RED LANTERN just this spring, and I was blown the fuck away. Since they I’ve been slowly watching every one of his films I can find. Now, I at first took RTRL as a work of subversion, using a technique familiar to me from Eastern Bloc art: set your criticism in the past, and then if the censor comes calling you can say you’re only illustrating how bad things were before the revolution. Then I saw RED SORGHUM (ultimate communist title there FTW IMHO) which is unapologetic revolutionary propaganda more in the mode of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN than of RAMBO, and I wondered if the point of RTRL wasn’t ironic at all. Hmmm. Either way, the anti-patriarchal stance of RTRL rules.

    A while later I saw TO LIVE which, at a minimum, says that the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap forward were, uh, inexpertly implemented. This is the film that apparently got Yimou and actress/wife/muse Gong Li barred from moviemaking for 2 years. So that was a bold stance and also a very good movie although sadly devoid of blade action, although one character does get crushed by bricks.

    Sadly I haven’t tracked down anything between that and the HERO/HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS phase of his career and by then the guy seems to have, to put it reductively, kinda sorta sold the fuck out. I’m not very knowledgeable about Chinese history or culture but I do know how to look for criticism by people who at least appear to know something about China and I can also consult Wikipedia (which I will have to do re: the Three Kingdoms period of SHADOW) and from what I’ve read about HERO, for example, the leader Jet Li fights for, the Qin Emperor, is none other than the terra cotta army dude, the first emperor of a United China. Now the terra cotta warrior army strikes me as being fukkin’ awesome in the same way the pyramids do: wasteful and superstitious and no doubt the projects of total megalomaniacs, but hey it was a long time ago man and they’re also really cool and are enduring sources of identity and pride and selfie opportunities. I’m not here to judge the distant past. More disturbing is that this emperor is said to have burned literature, in his case not books but actual scholars. Hardcore! I don’t think modern scholarship fully endorses this claim, but whether or not he did is beside the point, which is that this legend is something attached to the man in popular memory, like Washington and his cherry tree. Another
    disturbing bit of ideology which is openly in the film itself is that the emperor talks about unifying many writing systems in order to create Chinese script and create a nation. I knew this was trouble right away because authoritarians almost always hate “dialects” and “rough speech,” and as us action fans know, Beijing has been slowly but surely trying to get everybody in the PRC to use Mandarin/Putonghua in order to create a great, unified nation who all talk alike and are easy to instruct. I mean, Yimou could have made a film even about that very emperor that didn’t celebrate his bureaucraticization of language.

    It was disheartening seeing that Yimou would use his camera to mythologize this shit.

    Who knows? Not me, really. As far as I was able to figure out CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER doesn’t have much of a political message at all, and I still haven’t looked into SHADOW’s period or indeed gotten the plot. But I’m sure there are things there at levels inaccessible to me. Maybe some Chinese or knowledgeable foreigners are lurking and can fill us in?

    I’ll keep watching Yimou for sure, I like the filmatism and action a lot, but I’m tryna figure out if 21st century ZY is a great artist or just a master stylist.

  6. I have a philosophical an aesthetic disagreement with the school of action that turns violence into Cirque du Soleil, and this reached its height watching HERO, which was admittedly beautiful but left a bad taste in my mouth that it took a while to unpack. Not only does the style of the film attempt to pretty up something ugly (violence) to what I felt was an unseemly degree (compared to, say, the bullet ballets of John Woo, which, in my opinion, maintain a balance between the brutality of the violent acts and the glamorous manner in which they are depicted, creating a sense of melancholy that I think is an underappreciated aspect of the Woo Zone) but the story attempts to do the same thing to some pretty ugly history. I can’t really get down with that. It’s too beautified to work as action and too disingenuous to work as drama. I had such a negative reaction to HERO that I’ve been suspicious of these prestige martial arts historical epics ever since.

  7. Mr M, I will say that this is a pretty bloody film and the film isn’t “gorgeous” like Hero (even though it’s a great looking film). I really hope you see this despite my reaction to this described or as A24 action.

  8. I most likely won’t, but for different reasons. I mostly don’t like period pieces, but I REALLY despise palace shenanigans. So a period piece about palace shenanigans is not gonna be up my alley. I simply am not interested in stories of already powerful assholes scheming for more power. I don’t care what form the “palace” takes: a kingdom, a country, a company, a crime empire. It’s all the same. To me, anybody who needs to rule that bad is the same simple, dull creature that we’ve all encountered thousands of time in stories and real life, and I am not interested in seeing their tedious need to prove how awesome they are glamorized by yet more mythologizing. Human civilization as been at the mercy of this infantile dick-measuring contest between psychopathic Great Men since the dawn of history, and I’m quite frankly sick of hearing about it. What’s this movie gonna tell me about power that the Trump presidency hasn’t made redundant? Even giving these venal lowlifes the benefit of a story arc is granting them more dignity than they deserve.

  9. A simple no would have sufficed lol

    That is fair. The palace intrigue stuff was what bored me the most.

  10. Yeah, sorry about the TMI. I’m sure I’d like it at least a little if I ever got around to but I gotta be honest that the subject matter makes that unlikely.

  11. I was really looking forward to watching this and the VOD broadcast I ordered was corrupted with massive technical glitching I was so disappointed. I’ll have to see if Netflix has it or something.

  12. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux – It seems Zhang can still get into a bit of trouble even at this stage of his career. Have you heard about the recent batch of high-profile Chinese films that saw their releases halted, including Zhang’s Cultural Revolution-set drama One Second and a big, Imax period war film?




    One thing I really liked about this one: the wussy, prissy king who doesn’t want to do the awesome thing and go to war over matters of honor… turns out to be exactly right. Nobody really has good motives, but if they’d just listened to him and not been such macho dipshits, they’d have got everything they professed to want without nearly as much sacrifice. It’s the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t see in an American film, where the idea of a rugged individualist tough guy hero (and even anti-hero) is so ingrained that the idea that he’s wrong would be almost unimaginable. Like so many things in this movie, it adds some interesting nuance to the rah-rah militarism of, for example, the king’s sister, whose empowerment through violence turns out to be needless and self-destructive (and in fact, the guy she wants revenge on for the insult actually ends up being probably the least deplorable character in the movie. But she kills him anyway, at great cost, for absolutely no good reason). It’s a rare action movie which really does offer some real challenge to the idea that all this violence is a good thing, while still delivering the violence in a satisfying way.


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