Commander Yu of the Pei Kingdom is a bit like Field Marshal “Monty” Montgomery (and Saddam Hussein). He uses a double. “Use” really is the right word. The Machiavellian Yu will exploit his other self while openly defying his king in Zhang Yimou’s masterwork Shadow, which opens tomorrow in New York.
The Kingdoms of Pei and Yang have struck an uneasy alliance, but the latter enjoys the stronger position, because they hold the strategically important city of Jingzhou. That does not sit well with a fervent Pei nationalist like Yu, but the cruel and cowardly king has dug in his heels. Rather than challenge Yang’s claim to the city, he will instead sacrifice his beloved sister as a marriage offering. However, Yu upsets his plans by having his “shadow,” the peasant-born Jing, challenge Yang’s legendary commander, Yang Cang, to a mano-a-mano for-all-the-marbles duel.
Of course, this enrages the Pei King, who is all too willing to rule as a de facto vassal of Yang, as long as his authority is obsequiously respected. Meanwhile, Jing develops free-agent inclinations of his own. The only ally Yu can fully count on is his wife (only referred to as “Madam”), whose loyalty is unconditional, even though her romantic affections are starting to shift to Jing.
Shadow was relatively unheralded before its Western festival debut, but it ranks up there with Zhang’s finest wuxia epics, which is saying something. Without question, it is one of his most visually stunning films, clearly inspired by Chinese ink-wash and charcoal drawings. Technically, this is still a color film, but Zhang largely utilizes an austere but striking color palette of blacks, whites, and grays.
The big martial arts set pieces are equally amazing to behold, if not more so. The umbrella fighting techniques practiced by Yu (played by Jing) might sound eccentric, but they are lethally cinematic. The same is true of the epic-worthy set design, including the awe-inspiring Ying-Yang battle platform.
Deng Cao truly covers the waterfront in the dual role of Jing and Yu. He chews plenty of scenery as both hero and villain, but he also shows off his tremendous action chops. Zheng Kai is spectacularly slimy and downright odious as the King, while Hu Jun is gruff but dignified as General Yang. However, it is Sun Li who truly grounds the film as the noble, long-suffering Madam Yu.
The imagery is arresting, the fight scenes are super-charged, and the drama is the stuff of classic high tragedy. Taken altogether, Shadow makes the case for Wuxia as the ultimate artistic flowering of action cinema. It is a great film from a master filmmaker. Very highly recommended, Shadow opens tomorrow (5/3) in New York, at the IFC Center and the Landmark 57.