****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. A wonderfully made, visually stunning and dramatically and psychologically satisfying Chinese action film in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
Shadow, directed by iconic Chinese film maker Zhang Yimou, is the story of Jingzhou who is trained from a young age to be a double/shadow for military leader Ziyu. The film stars Deng Chao in a dual role as Jingzhou and Commander Ziyu, with supporting turns from Sun Li and Zheng Kai.
Shadow is best described as a Wuxia film, which is a genre of Chinese fantasy/fiction that revolves around “martial heroes” in a world of magical realism. Notable examples of Wuxia films are Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and House of Flying Daggers by the same director as Shadow, Zhang Yimou.
Yimou, who is one of the great directors of his generation, has a flair for unique fight choreography and paints his films with a striking palette and dramatic visuals. In Shadow, Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding use a muted grey, black and white as the dominant color scheme but the film’s visuals crackle with a stunning intensity. The film is beautifully shot, highlighted by Xiaoding’s gorgeous framing (just look at the poster above) and use of a crisp and clear contrast between the blacks and the whites, the shadow and the light. Yimou and Xiaoding’s masterful use of contrast creates a visual clarity and coherence that is a joy to behold.
Shadow is a psychologically and dramatically rich story that deeply mines the Jungian concepts of the shadow. The most obvious example of this is that Chao plays both Jing and Ziyi, who are essentially the same entity with two different elements of its psyche projected into the outer world, each vying for control. Jing “the shadow”, must be identical to Ziyi, and in a delicious bit of Jungian symbolism, must have the identical “wound” as Ziyi. Ziyi in turn must integrate his “shadow” in order to make himself whole again, or face the consequences of being overcome by his psychological shadow.
The shadow is a complex and dramatically potent psychological premise used to great effect by other film makers from the East, most notably Japanese master Akira Kurosawa in the terrific film Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior). Like Shadow, Kagemusha also effectively used a single actor (the great Tatsuya Nakadai) to play both the role of the man of power and his shadow. Yimou dives even deeper into Jungian shadow psychology than Kurosawa though by emphasizing the anima (the feminine) and the imperative to also integrate that feminine power in order to become whole.
The ying and yang and wholeness are dominant themes throughout the movie (again look at the poster above) and Yimou emphasizes that battle/balance between the opposites not only visually with the black versus white color scheme, but dramatically with opposing masculine roles and opposing feminine roles. Just as Ziyi has Jing as his literal shadow (and vice versa), Ziyi’s wife, Xiao Ai has a symbolic opposite/shadow in Princess Qingping. That sort of balance in the narrative makes the film dramatically and subconciously very satisfying even while it maintains a pronounced assault and challenge upon our storytelling expectations.
Wholeness is also represented in numerous ways in the film, most notably by the umbrella. A circle is the symbol for wholeness and in Shadow, Jing integrates his masculine and feminine sides by using a circle, an umbrella, as a weapon not only of defense but of offense. Jing’s learning the use of the umbrella is an integration dance between the masculine and the feminine. The use of the umbrella is not only psychologically resonant but is visually striking as well.
The cast all do solid work with Deng Chao in his dual role and Sun Li as Ziyi’s wife being the most notable. Chao is really remarkable as both men and it is easy to forget the same actor is playing both roles. Sun Li’s work is incredibly layered and she brings a palpable humanity and fragility to the role that profoundly accentuates the drama.
The fight sequences are all so unique, original and compelling that they are a wonder to behold. Since The Matrix and Crouching Tiger became such big hits twenty years ago, slow motion martial arts moves have become passe, but Yimou fantastically turns everything on its head in Shadow and creates vibrant and vivid fights that are gloriously choreographed and cinematically mesmerizing. Yimou also wisely uses water and rain to further visually enhance the fight sequences.
While Shadow can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you go in unaware of the plot, once it hits its stride it is truly fantastic. I loved the film because it is such a dramatically, psychologically and cinematically rich example of the magical realism of Wuxia in action. If you are a fan of Wuxia or Yimou, rush out and see this movie in the theatres immediately. If you are less a Wuxia enthusiast, but enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Shadow may be a little tougher to penetrate because it isn’t as easily digestible or romantically sweeping as Ang Lee’s epic, but it is equally beautiful to look at. But with all that said, even if you are on the fence about going to see Shadow, why not give it a shot….the shadow you save might just be your own.