Shadow, the new action epic from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, is a bit slow to get rolling and likely inscrutable, politically, to the average American. Yet what it lacks in immediate gratification it makes up for in visual spectacle: from the set design to the action choreography to the costuming, Shadow is sumptuous and sensuous throughout.
As the opening titles explain, three kingdoms fought for control of the great city, Jing. Champions from two of the cities, Yan and Pei, battled. Pei's champion was grievously wounded. Yan and Pei then joined forces to defeat the third kingdom, leaving the Yan kingdom and their leader in control of Jing. Some time has passed, and The Commander (Deng Chao) is tired of living with the ignominy of his defeat and the abasement of his city: going against the wishes of his King (Zheng Kai), The Commander has challenged Yang Cang (Hu Jun) to a duel for control of Jing.
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The King is outraged. He has traded face for peace, and demands his minions accept the corrupt bargain. The Commander's inability to hide his humiliation masks a darker secret: he is, in fact, a double (the eponymous Shadow, also played by Deng Chao), a doppelganger stolen from the city of Jing as a child and raised in hidden captivity in the chance that the Commander needed a stand-in. Only The Commander's wife, Xiao Ai (Sun Li), knows that the Commander's wound endured during the battle for Jing was so severe it has left him hobbled. The Shadow must master a new style of combat if the Kingdom of Pei is to unseat the Kingdom of Yan from the city of Jing.
Simultaneously epic and intimate, Shadow takes a little while to hit its stride; it isn't until The Shadow and The Commander spar with each other that we see the full beauty of Zhang Yimou's work. His camera rests overhead a taijitu, each fighter occupying one of the dots of the yin and yang; his camera occupies a low angle, the film shot in slow motion so the bamboo stick splashing through the water and the feet skipping through puddles look as if they're kicking up dust on a battlefield; his camera moves fluidly as The Commander's bamboo shaft spins off of an umbrella wielded by The Shadow, his defensive maneuvers eventually revealed to be inadequate to the task of defeating the stand-in for the Yang's sword.
Yimou's battle sequences are not stitched together in an editing suite via hyperkinetic cutting, nor are they over-planned, one-take, pseudo-masterpieces. They are instead elegantly designed—each shot serves a purpose, and that purpose is generally movement, either of the battle's participants or their weaponry—and easily discerned. He is guiding us through the fights, helping us understand the push and pull of battle, the physics of combat.
My issue with Shadow is my issue with many Chinese films: I feel that I'd understand it better if I had more than a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese politics. A film of this magnitude does not get made without the support of the government, and Yimou has gone from a filmmaker who sometimes earned the disfavor of the state to one who filmed the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing. His epic action film Hero, for instance, is a great martial arts film and a not-so-subtle shot across the bow of Taiwan, China's unruly prodigal child. I can't help but wonder what the message of Shadow—a film about a cowardly leader willing to trade his people's dignity and the honor of his sister for peace; a film about a hidden leader in the underbelly of a castle whose corruption consumes him—truly is. Let's go with "the Senkakus," and leave it at that.
Still, a superficial understanding of the film is sufficient if one needs no more than entertainment: Shadow is a gripping action epic, one that deftly combines Shakespearean courtside politics and Chinese swordplay.