Centuries of Chinese literati have lost themselves in appreciative reveries when contemplating ink wash paintings of rivers and mountains. With Shadow (Ying / 影 2018)—shooting the black-and-white rain-soaked production design (Horace Ma) in bleached color—director Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding have allowed us the same experience. The staggering beauty of the film, only enhanced by the long takes, harmonious compositions, and subdued zither soundtrack, is impossible to convey in words, but Jessica Kiang at the trade publication Variety comes close:
Black ink drips from the tip of a brush and daggers into clear water, spiraling out like smoke; a Chinese zither sounds a ferocious, twanging note that warps and buckles in its sustain; rain mottles the sky to a heavy watercolor gray, forming pools on paving stones into which warriors bleed; whispery drafts from hidden palace chambers stir tendrils of hair and set the hems of luxuriant, patterned robes fluttering.
All this is impressive enough, but the film goes even further, presenting a plot in the grand wuxia tradition, written by Zhang and Li Wei (and adapted from a Three Kingdoms play by Zhu Sujin but leaving history behind), that is narratively and thematically complex but still flows like running water, thanks in no small part to Zhou Xiaolin’s superb editing. A surprise fourth act will leave you reeling, and then the film reveals its biggest shocker: It ends exactly where it begins.
The small mountainous kingdom of Pei has lost the city of Jingzhou to its more powerful neighbor, but the seemingly dissolute young King (Zheng Kai) prohibits any talk of avenging this national shame for fear of being wiped off the map. Commander Yu (Deng Chao), defying orders, returns from a secret trip to Jingzhou with a pledge from its current ruler, General Yang Cang (Hu Jun), to settle the city’s fate once and for all with a duel; he is immediately discharged from service. Captain Tian Zhan (Wang Qianyuan) is also discharged when he objects to the King’s plan to sue for peace by marrying off his royal sister (Guan Xiaotong) to be the concubine of Yang’s son (Wu Lei).
But appearances are deceptive: Yu is actually a decoy, a “shadow,” standing in for the real Yu (also Deng), who is hidden in a secret cave, wasting away from an injury inflicted by Yang when Jingzhou was lost. Yu secretly plans to recover the city by using fake-Yu as a decoy (the irony!) to stall for time while Tian leads a secret assault team to infiltrate the city with an audacious plan that could’ve come right out of the Three Kingdoms playbook.
To stall for time effectively, Yu and his decoy must devise a way to draw out Yang’s notoriously short duels. (The locale of the duel, when it takes place, is jaw dropping.) Inspiration strikes Yu’s wife, Xiao Ai (Sun Li), when she proposes a more feminine (yin) fighting style to counter the duel’s masculine (yang) elements. The decoy learns quickly under her guidance, but since in wuxia tales martial prowess always reflects spiritual centeredness, Yu suspects that his wife is falling for this healthier version of himself, and vice versa.
And that’s all I can say about the plot, which reveals layers underneath layers the further along it goes. It sounds complicated, yet the weight of all but two of the expository scenes is carried by appealing to wuxia archetypes: dissolute King, hotblooded generals, rebellious younger sister, scheming hermit with wild-flowing hair, brainwashed innocent young man sent on someone else’s mission, and purehearted woman trapped between Machiavellian men. Deng is especially tremendous as both the brainwashed young man and the scheming hermit, losing 40 kilograms (88 pounds) in between; utterly convincing whether healthy, ailing, fighting, wounded, loyal, or conflicted, he’s always at least a little sympathetic—until, suddenly, he isn’t. In fact, the only weak performance is Wu’s wooden turn as Yang’s son, and it somehow isn’t surprising when his warnings to his father of a possible trick fail to convince.
The constant scheming also makes it hard to find a moral compass with which the audience can identify. At first we agree with the King—who, as the Chinese idiom has it, is merely “cutting off his tail to preserve his life”—but when he’s shown drinking and cavorting with women, his apparent cowardice leads us to switch allegiance to fake-Yu, who is dueling Yang, and most likely committing suicide, through no will of his own. After all the twists and turns have come to pass, however, the only person whose integrity remains intact is Xiao Ai’s, and in a subversion of the traditional wuxia ending, the film gives her no way out—though, intriguingly, the opening titles state that the events of the film are merely where “the story begins.” The film’s message seems to be that absolute power corrupts absolutely, making it a veiled critique of China’s current leader.
Shadow has relatively few fight scenes for a wuxia film, and wirework, a staple of the genre, is used only once, for emotional effect rather than spectacle. In a welcome respite from the style of Hollywood blockbusters, the camera is steady and always coherent; the only instance of shaky camerawork again reflects an emotional state, and its execution is on a par with Paul Greengrass’s in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Even the spectacle of the invasion of Jingzhou isn’t a concession, as the defending soldiers are as wonderstruck at the attack as we are.
The sheer beauty of the film shouldn’t distract you from using your ears as well. The background music by Lao Zai is exclusively zither and lute, and much of it is (revealed to be) diegetic; zither music can be melancholy or tense, and both modes are deployed exactly when needed. Aside from the music, the sound design plays a key role in setting the mood: The constant sounds of rainfall or dripping water lend static shots dynamism, and the sound of something hitting the floor and bouncing away creates a sense of space among Yu’s cloistered hiding place, the overlapping translucent screens of private residences, and the narrow hall of the King’s court.
Judging by the length of the end credits, the film has the full backing of the Mainland Chinese cultural arena, and of key political elements, too. Their support, and the 140 million RMB (roughly 19.6 million USD) budget, was well spent.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at The News Lens International.