Commander (Chao Deng) is loyal to the King of Pei. They are exiled and hope to reclaim their lost home country. However, the Commander is, in fact, an impostor; a shadow covering for the real commander who is ailing and unable to fulfill his duties. The real commander hides beneath the city, plotting how to defeat his great foe, General Yang. The shadow commander must work hard to keep his identity a disguise, including building a relationship with the Commander’s wife (Li Sum).
There’s a lot of duplicity in Zhang Yimou’s latest historical drama. Characters are caught between allegiances and the best course of action is often unclear. The film does a convincing job of developing both sides of the central conflict, though perhaps more could be done to demonstrate why reclaiming their homeland is so important. There’s little made of the character’s attachment to this place.
It is a Zhang Yimou film and so of course it is gorgeous. The film is made to resemble an ink painting but charcoal is a more accurate description of texture on display. The film is shot in colour but the production design is monochromatic. Everything is depicted in striking shades of grey, with occasional pink flesh or bright red blood to contrast. It is a painterly film with breathtaking moments of visual ambition.
It is however a much bloodier film than Yimou’s earlier epics. The tale is less no less poignant than Hero or House of Flying Daggers but there’s a viscera that and brutality to the action that leans away from poetry. It’s a harsher martial arts story but no less graceful. The fight scenes are gloriously choreographed with unusual elements such as razor bladed umbrella’s. Yimou was determined to do as little with CGI as possible, which benefits the ambition of the film.
Superficially there’s talk of a more feminine approach being needed to win the upcoming battle. Beyond swaying their hips before battle it’s not entirely clear how this manifests, but the sentiment is appreciated. Female characters are certainly portrayed as being just as capable as the men, especially Xiaotong Guan who is feisty and charismatic as The Princess.
Shadow is another visually stunning martial arts epic from Yimou, though the human element is sometimes lost in the spectacle.