Friday, 2 November 2018

Shadow (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Against the orders of his king (Ryan Zhang), Commander Yu (Chao Deng) has challenged General Yang (Jun Hu) to a one-on-one duel, with the victor gaining the territory of the defeated, which Yu means regaining his homeland. As Yu prepares for the battle, forces both in plain sight and hidden in the shadows work towards all-out war, and the fate of both kingdoms will hang in the balance.

Zhang Yimou is basically the guy most point to when trying to explain what a film’s ‘colour palette’ is. Or maybe that's just me. His mastery with costume and set design from House Of Flying Daggers to Curse Of The Golden Flower, even last year’s The Great Wall, is pretty much guaranteed to offer up some uniquely striking visuals. This film is no exception to that, although it arrives in a rather unprecedented way; namely, how the film is largely devoid of actual colour. Pretty much everything that a person is able to colour correct without essentially God is affected here, leaving only skin tone, blood and the muted greens of nature intact; all else is monochrome. The result of this is an almost-Sin City display of eye-catching colour set against the impossibly grey-toned backdrop, making the blood shed during the fight scenes stand out even more so than they would otherwise in all their arterial-spraying glory. It’s one of the rare instances where this level of intentionally dreary visualisation doesn’t result in the eye just fading over the same three non-colours for an entire film; far bloody from it. Instead, it ends up enforcing the film’s more subtextual ideas, like the colour of a sky when it’s pouring with rain, yet not so dark that it denotes a storm. Like an eerie, misty calm before that storm cracks the land in twain.

The use of rain throughout ends up giving the film a surprising amount of punch when it comes to the fight scenes, beyond the visual motif of rain washing away all the blood that has been spilled in the name of conquest. While swords and guandaos feature prominently, the weapons that get the most screen time overall? Umbrellas. No, this isn’t an attempt at a Kingsman sequel, although this film does end up going even further to highlight an umbrella as both a lethal and practical weapon. As a tool in the action scenes, the razor-sharp bladed umbrellas that the Pei soldiers utilize make for some very Flying Daggers-esque sequences, not to mention one of the fucking coolest charges into battle I’ve seen all year.

Not that it’s meant solely to create eye candy, and it’s here where both the film’s deeper themes and the importance of the title make themselves known. In setting up the main duel between Commander Yu and General Yang, Yu is told that in order to offset Yang’s forceful and stamina-draining attacks, he must use what are referred to as “feminine” techniques with the Pei umbrella. Graceful movements, working around the brute force of the opponent; basically, serving as the yin to the General’s yang. I sigh mildly at how literally spelled out that idea is, but it still manages to land on solid ground thematically and textually. Thematically, it follows up the more feminist leanings of Great Wall to show how something as dainty as an umbrella, wielded by those who were basically told to ‘fight like a girl’, can take down a mighty army. Textually, along with the frequent yin-yang visual leitmotifs, it furthers the idea of how certain things lay hidden within others, like how the strength of a hundred men can hide inside one woman or, more pointedly, how one man’s shadow can hide a deadly foe.

That, ultimately, is what the grey tones of the visuals are meant to convey: A complete absence of raw black-and-white, both literally and figuratively. While the choice of setting within the Three Kingdoms era makes this feel like one flamboyant vocal delivery away from a Dynasty Warriors adaptation, it actually fits in with how the ideas of power and loyalty whirl around the words of the characters. It’s also where the acting truly shines, as it shows a collection of people who are mostly vying for some form of power or even revelation, but none of whom really get pinned down as outright good or bad.

Chao Deng as both Commander Yu and the mad hermit Jing highlights this best, with Yu serving as a Frankenstein of sorts to the one he was trained to protect; the Shadow that grew a life of its own. Zheng as the king of Pei may have his head-tilting moments early on with how he is portrayed as a bumbling womaniser, the panic set in by his determination to keep his place on the throne and for his head to keep its place on his neck seriously rings through. Add to that Li Sun as Madam, who shows an uncomfortable amount of sheer devotion to both the Commander and Jing, and Xiaotong Guan as the Princess of Pei, who ends up securing the single most badass moment of the entire film, and you get a story about opposing and (for lack of a less trite word) shadowy forces working to secure power. One that admittedly lulls during some of the wordier exchanges but, as both setup for the truly gorgeous fight scenes and as embodiment of the film’s take on femininity and the want for power, self-preservation and fealty, it never stays dull for nearly long enough to diminish the true power contained within.

All in all, this is a mesmerizingly cool and intricate piece of period-action cinema. The acting is top notch all round, really helping to sell the morally ambiguous tones of the script, which itself ranges from venomous to almost Shakespearean in the articulations of loyalty and blood-soaked carnage. Said carnage is beautifully captured, not to mention resulting in a serious ‘mouth-hanging-open-from-the-sheer-awesomeness-on-display’ moment, and lends itself incredibly to the themes of feminine strength and prowess that Yimou has been making bank with for a while now. And then there’s the visual palette, which shows Yimou being as striking as ever with his use of colour, even if there’s considerably less of it to be found here. This is seriously impressive stuff, no two ways about it.

It ranks higher than Tag, as the enjoyment from the action scenes amounts to far more than just a humourous clashing of tones. Shadow is a masterful display, using all things grey, vengeful and entrancingly graceful to weave its story about the bloody and complicated paths to power. However, as good as this is and as much as this will make me sound like an absolute child for admitting to it, it still doesn’t rank as highly with me as Smallfoot. This film’s positives basically serve as amplifications of the best parts of the last Zhang Yimou film I reviewed, just without any nationalistic leanings to muddy the rain waters. There is no precedent on Earth for a film like Smallfoot, which still carries some of the most challenging material I’ve seen in any family film, let alone an animated musical about Yetis.

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