Written by Wei Li and Yimou Zhang
Directed by Yimou Zhang
Starring Chao Deng, Li Sun and Ryan Zheng
Running time: 1 hour and 56 minutes
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
The main thing that drove my interest to see Shadow was my love for co-writer/director Yimou Zhang’s 2002 Hero. Sure, this isn’t going to have Jet Li’s charisma but, the mood and visual style of Zhang’s work captivates me. My favorite scene from Hero is the fight set to the zither music in the rain. Shadow is almost ALL zither and rain! (It is referred to as a zither in the subtitles but, I believe, is normally called a guzheng.)
Shadow takes place during the later portion of the Eastern Han dynasty (around 200 AD) and the majority of the characters are based on historical figures of that time. Doing a light bit of research after the fact, there’s a good deal of cultural context that could be missed but (if you’re paying attention) was mostly played out in the film.
The story centers around a petulant young king [Ryan (Kai) Zheng] and the politics of keeping his people happy while maintaining the peace with a neighboring faction that has taken possession of a portion of their land. The king’s commander (Chao Deng) is in-place from the previous king (as are many of the generals) and his motives are somewhat suspect. Injured during the loss to the neighboring faction, he has employed a lookalike “shadow” (also Deng) to act as him while he schemes to take back the lost city. The existence of this “shadow” is a secret kept between him and his wife (Sun Li) as they continue to train him to convincingly act and look like the commander.
There’s tons of schemes and subplots here as the various heads of state battle for control of the land and its military. There’s also a bit of romance and a healthy dose of family drama that give the whole of the film a bit of a faerie tale feel. Many of the characters actions are exaggerated and the schemes are a bit too far-fetched to seem realistic. This isn’t a negative, it just gives the movie a bit of a whimsical feel.
While the story is fun, the main draw to this film is the action and the visuals. The action is fun and engaging (if not a bit anachronistic) with several fight scenes and one battle scene, but the visual styling is the real stunner here. The entire film, other than the actors, is monochrome. The set, costumes and (almost all of) the landscapes are black, white or some shade of gray in between. It’s an impressive feat that is pulled off exceptionally well.
Deng was quite impressive playing the dual roles and based solely on the action, story and performances, I’d recommend checking this out at home. However, the visual spectacle of the black and white makes this well worth going to see in a theater if you get a chance. It’s playing now in the Philadelphia area and may be expanding to some smaller markets soon.