Death Umbrellas and Zither Masters

‘Shadow,’ a Bonkers Chinese Martial-Arts Melodrama

Wuxia fans with a penchant for arthouse artifice will swoon to Shadow, the latest martial arts spectacular from once-revered, now-uneven international auteur Zhang Yimou. The prolific journeyman has tackled intimate dramas, politically subversive stories, period pieces, big-budget industrial epics, low-budget personal projects, even a remake of the Coens’ neo-noir classic Blood Simple. But his action-packed historical fantasies, among them Hero and House of Flying Daggers, are truly remarkable, even when they’re weirdly forgettable. Add Shadow to this list, a stultifying melodrama with gonzo fight scenes so dazzling, so baroque, so downright harebrained, it will leave you slack-jawed.


SHADOW ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan
Running time: 116 min


 

Two words: “Pei umbrella.” During a torrential downpour, Trojan-horse soldiers secretly scuba-dive into a fortress city. After emerging onto the streets, they open up what look to be standard-issue parasols but quickly reveal themselves to be a circular array of razor-sharp blades that eject into oncoming phalanxes with deadly abandon. Wait, what?

That’s not all. Flip over these deadly mini-canopies and you’ve got yourself a watersled. Paired with a second one for top cover, the warriors whirl down a slippery promenade, creating a Sit ‘n’ Spin army more akin to Sonic the Hedgehog then anything out of ancient China. Oh, they also have wrist-mounted pocket crossbows.

Action abounds in Shadow, directed by Zhang Yimou.

And right nearby, their commander is dueling off against an evil general, both pirouetting through water droplets while slashing each other’s bodies into scarlet ribbons. Imagine a mash-up of Singin’ in the Rain with The Seven Samurai and you’re getting close to grasping this cinematic ode to bonkers tactical ingenuity. Historical accuracy be damned. Did Sun Tzu even know about this shit?

Did I mention the entire film is black and white? Beautiful chiaroscuro sets, props, and outfits give an ebony-and-ivory sheen to a morally murky world. Except, that is, for skin tones and blood. So, so much blood. So many slit throats! “Some things don’t have a right or wrong,” cries one character. Is that why the protagonist is facing off on a huge Tai Chi diagram? Because yin and yang. It’s a little on the nose, but who cares? Dude has a fucking Pei umbrella!

Zhang has always been a virtuoso stylist. The ways in which he interlaces production design, cinematography, and costumes into elaborate swordplay are breathtaking. As CGI special effects have evolved over the past 20 years, so too has Zhang’s protean facility for virtually seamless moments of thrillingly kinetic artifice.

Unfortunately, there’s a plot. This one has to do with a petulant young King Ping who rules over Pei, a domain threatened by General Yang of Jing City. Ping has a sister, and he’s tempted to placate Yang by giving her over to be his concubine. Ping’s trusted commander wants to attack Yang, but Ping thinks it’s too risky. Also risky: being his commander. So the commander actually has a body double, a shadow commander who bears the same chest wound and has the same intensive fight training to pass as the real deal. The commander, who looks crazy and lives in a secret cave, also has a wife who’s torn between her hermit betrothed and his stud doppelgänger.

By the way, the married couple are also super into playing the zither. “You must master the zither and suffer this cut!” cries the cuckoo commander to his stand-in. During one big climactic battle scene, the film intercuts between the bloody conflagration and a husband-and-wife zither-off. Be patient as Shadow dithers with zithers and plows through its overwrought exposition of palace intrigue. When it finally kicks into gear, it more than delivers on the good stuff.

When he first burst on the international scene in 1987 with the ravishing, heart-wrenching peasant drama Red Sorghum, Zhang was the rebellious new voice of Chinese Cinema. But in the decades that followed, he tamped down his criticism of the Middle Kingdom’s authoritarian regime and embraced toothless popcorn pictures. The pandering has allowed the prolific filmmaker to keep working, with more than 20 films to his name. At times, he’s played so nice that even directed the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Yes, Zhang is the guy behind the bizarre Matt Damon monsters-in-Imperial-China flick The Great Wall. But he’s also the man who just made One Second, a film that the Berlin Film festival abruptly pulled this past February, using the unelaborated official bullshit excuse of “technical difficulties.” Good to know he can still make his government squirm.

“You Will Know My Velocity!”–Shadow, directed by Zhang Yimou.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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