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  Shadow Chinese Quandary
Year: 2018
Director: Zhang Yimou
Stars: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu, Feng Bai
Genre: Drama, War, Martial ArtsBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Many moons ago in ancient China, there was a war between three kingdoms that was resolved to a point when the Pei kingdom eventually dominated, but the fragile peace may be about to dissolve when its King (Zheng Kai) hears word that his Commander (Deng Chao) has committed an act of possible treason. It turns out this is mostly true, for the Commander has gone behind his monarch's back to confront the Yang kingdom's leader (Hu Jun), a fearsome fighter who prides himself on his apparent invincibility. Why would the Commander do such a thing when he knows the consequences will be dire for him and his wife (Sun Li), an expert zither player who duets with him?

After the mixed reception his fantasy action effort The Great Wall received, it seemed as if writer and director Zhang Yimou was lost to the machinations of China's monolithic demands on entertainment, but then Shadow was released and was acclaimed throughout the world as a fine example of the wuxia style that had resonance beyond a simple martial arts movie. When that same year Zhang's next movie, One Second, was mysteriously withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival, it would appear the benevolent approach those authorities were taking to works such as Shadow was perhaps more problematic for them than it initially seemed, endearing him all the more to the West.

While debate rumbled on about the status of this undoubted visual talent, we still had this, set safely in a galaxy far, far away, or Ancient China anyway, to feast our eyes upon, its imagery inspired, Zhang was happy to point out, by the calligraphy of his homeland. This meant everything was in shades of black and white, but mostly black, all the more striking since it remained a film made in colour, it had simply been designed and treated otherwise to craft a wuxia that really did not look like any other. The walls of rock, the pouring rain, the increasing gouts of blood: if the story did not grip you, then simply watch and drink in that exquisite sheen with your eyes, it looked fantastic.

That was enough for many fans, but there were grumbles the plot was not up to much when divorced from the visual splendour. It took the Commander as its lead, but complicated that as he is not who he seems, indeed he is not the Commander at all but actually his exact double (also played by Deng, naturally, through the wonders of computer graphics), and the other man is living in a cave under the Pei palace (!) and scheming to get his vengeance on the King. Meanwhile that King has offered his sister, the beautiful, unruly Princess (Guan Xiaotong), as a peacemaker if she marries the Yang leader's son (Leo Wu), but the Yang man has no truck with that, he wants her as his concubine or nothing, a state of affairs that deeply insults the Princess. To the extent that she starts scheming herself and demands satisfaction.

This storyline was pretty preposterous, it had to be said, and you either embraced it or gave up on Shadow as not for you. But even if you were not happy about the double-crosses from actual doubles inherent in the piece, there was much to appreciate nonetheless as the fighting, while not as plentiful as maybe a diehard action genre fan would have wanted, had as eccentric a presentation as the rest of its quirks. Take the assault on the Yang stronghold, where the Commander corrals a bunch of ne'erdowells who had no hope anyway to attack their forces with umbrellas; apt for the weather, but these were no ordinary brollies, they were made of sharp blades, some of which would fly off as projectiles. This also gave rise to combat choreography apparently inspired by Gene Kelly's most celebrated dance routine in the classic Singin' in the Rain, as if this could not get any odder. As polished as Shadow was, it was these bizarre choices that offered the project personality, and if it was rather daft, you would not see a better-looking film in its technique. Oh, and the zither was relevant. Music by Loudboy.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Zhang Yimou  (1951 - )

Chinese director responsible for some of the country's best known international hits. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Yimou made his debut in 1987 with Red Sorghum, which like much of his later work combined a small-scale drama with stunning visuals. His breakthrough film was the beautiful Raise the Red Lantern, the first of four films he made with then-partner Gong Li. The Story of Qui Ju, To Live, Shanghai Triad and Not One Less were among the films Yimou made throughout the 90s. The Chaplin-esque comedy Happy Times was a bit of a misfire, but 2002's Oscar-nominated martial arts spectacle Hero was a massive hit, critically and commercially. Another martial arts film, House of Flying Daggers, followed in 2004, as did Curse of the Golden Flower and later the internationally-flavoured fantasy The Great Wall and acclaimed, stylish Shadow.

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