China (2018) Dir. Zhang Yimou
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
Whilst the above quote came from the introduction to a famous radio show of the 1930’s featuring the pulp fiction hero The Shadow, its relevance to this film is its plot involves “shadowy” people.
In the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, is an uneasy alliance between the Pei and Yang kingdoms, due to the Pei city of Jing being under the control of Yang’s General Yang (Hu Jun), which King Peiliang (Zheng Kai) refuses to reclaim, upsetting his proud military advisors who demand action. One in particular is Commander Yu (Deng Chao), so badly wounded in battle against Yang that he has retreated out of sight.
However, Yu has recruited a “shadow”, his exact double named Jing (Deng), to take his place in public to give the impression all is well whilst Yu secretly plots his revenge against Yang. The only other person who knows of this deception is Yu’s wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li), and an inevitably frisson develops between her and Jing. Having been parted from his mother, Yu vows to reunite them if he defeats Yang using a new technique.
The plot of Shadow is not directly lifted from the vast library of stories found in the epic fictional Three Kingdoms saga by Luo Guanzhong but is the influenced is definitely there, along with many characters being parallels of those from the true history. Zhang Yimou co-wrote the screenplay with Li Wei and in telling this twisting, complex tale of deception and political intrigue, they make the audience work hard to get into it.
Reading like the plot a straightforward period drama, the main story doesn’t reveal itself until after a good while, likely to prove frustrating for the less patient. By way of setting out its stall, the film’s opening scene is designed to set the tone for the confusion and subterfuge that remains pervasive throughout. The King and his sister Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong) are with Yu and Xaio Ai, and the King asks Yu and Xiao to play the lute but only Xiao offers to play.
Not a lot is to be gained from this scene other than to establish the key players of the story, and even after the opening prologue inform us of the concept of the “shadow” was de rigueur during this period due to the fear of assassination, we are yet to put two and two together. This is later explained by Jing’s inability to play the lute being one crucial giveaway he not the real general Yu, the other being a wound from his battle against Yang, but that is addressed in the next scene.
Deception requires a lot of commitment and as few people knowing about it as possible, but for Jing the sacrifices are worth it if he gets to see his mother again. His predictable falling for Xiao is an unfortunate side effect of this, one she mutually seems susceptible to, forcing her into hiding two secrets, since her husband has become a little unhinged in his self-imposed exile and his lust for revenge against Yang.
Yet Yu has devised a devilish plan that also keeps the King on his toes that makes things double exciting for the audience to follow since we aren’t always sure what is genuine and what is a result of Yu’s manipulation. Elsewhere, the King’s determination to keep General Yang onside sees him accept an offer to have Qingping be made a concubine to Yang’s son Ping (Leo Wu), something she is not happy with.
Usually in historical dramas, women are largely relegated to secondary roles as maids or concubines unless they are queens, but Yimou has decided to bring some modernity to his tale and make both his female leads strong and vital to the plot. Qingping is framed as a proto feminist, clearly with a bigger set than her effete brother and handy with weapons too, sneaking into the battlefield later in the film.
Xiao Ai is the glue that holds her husband’s plan together yet is the one factor that could destroy it. Making it appear lie she is sacrificing everything for her husband in keeping the charade alive, she is actually sacrificing her own happiness and in being the one to steer Jing in portraying Yu, has realised her own greater worth.
Interestingly, it is also Xiao’s femininity and grace that forms the tactics and form behind the counter to Yang’s deadly sabre in the upcoming battle, simply from her dancing prowess combined with her dainty handling of an umbrella. You might think, “Surely Jing isn’t going to challenge a sabre wielding general with an umbrella?” Oh, but he is, although this is no ordinary umbrella.
Since embracing wu xia after his original arthouse drama direction, Yimou has set a new standard for balletic and inventive fight sequences and whilst there are limited here, they certainly count. Whilst Jing and Yang do battle, a larger fight is occurring between their respective armies and it should be ripe for mocking with its outlandish, steampunk-ish ideas but at the same time it is quite fun to watch and its ingenuity is quite clever.
This is bolstered by the film’s unique aesthetic, a washed out colour palette bordering on monochrome, save for the actors and key foreground images, creating an unforgiving but enigmatic grey wash. The lavish sets and detailed costumes are dutifully captured by cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, which the cast inhabit with typical aplomb, lead by Deng Chao’s double duty in two contrasting roles.
A slow start and some jarring editing aside, Shadow is a return to form for Zhang Yimou after his recent missteps with his Hollywood co-productions. Whilst it’s not as mercurial as Hero or House Of Flying Daggers, Yimou proves that, left to his own devices, he is one of China’s most prominent and revered filmmakers with this superb addition to his impressive and varied canon.