A Glorious Second Act;
Splendid Design Work.
Zhang Yimou will probably always be remembered for the one-two combo of Hero and The House of Flying Daggers from the early 2000s. Those films took some of what made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such a hit and expanded on the action, costumes and production design to big results. While Shadow doesn’t live up those lofty heights, it is certainly a worthwhile entry in his catalog and features some stunning design and great sequences, despite getting off to a slow start.
Exposition is necessary to understand characters, setting and motivation, but sometimes it just doesn’t click as well as it should. The film opens with a lot of talk-heavy scenes that set up where the film will eventually go, but it could use some tightening up. If you watch the trailer before seeing this, after twenty minutes or so you may wonder if this is the same movie you saw advertised. But while the opening act is the film’s weak point, it’s second act struck me as an absolute powerhouse.
Once the film really gets going, the spectacles are a sight to see. The choreography is as good as you’d imagine, with inventive fighting scenes featuring a creative new weapon that allows for some really engaging sequences. Specifically (without spoiling anything), the downhill sequence once the fighting begins in the city is the high point of the film and downright exhilarating. I could have watched that scene four or five more times in a row and would have enjoyed it just as much with each viewing.
Chao Deng does very well in a double role, playing Commander and his “shadow,” the younger Jing. Though Jing is essentially Commander’s double, they are very different characters and Deng gives them each a distinct personality and does an admirable job in each skin. Some of the side characters, easily forgotten about or generally hollow in lesser scripts, are given proper characterization and make the most of their appearances. As one would come to expect from these types of period pieces, some of the acting in the final portions of the film can be a bit stagey, but it works for the material being presented. Perhaps I’m thinking this way because I just watched Kurosawa’s epic take on Macbeth, but Deng’s Commander reminded me a lot of Toshiro Mifune’s Washizu in the closing moments.
Visually, I found the film to be wonderful. The production, set and costume design work are all top-notch. Most of the dressing is all done in stark black and white, with the flesh tones and blood being all that pierces that shroud. It makes for an old school cinematic feel beyond the period itself, a great dichotomy when presented with modern action techniques. The constant presence of rain doesn’t just add to the dread-laden ambiance, but it can also come into play in the fighting, and some of the slow-motion shots that include water are amazing to look at.
This is certainly not a perfect film and probably won’t stand up to his earlier work, but is is unique, very well shot and quite engaging at times. It takes some of the ideas that gave his previous films a large impact and makes them feel new and exciting. If you’re a fan of this kind of film, you’ll likely find it rewarding. If you’re lucky enough to live near a theater playing Shadow in its limited run, seek it out!
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