(director/writer: Zhang Yimou; screenwriter: Li Wei; cinematographer: Zhao Xiaoding; editor: Zhou Xiaolin; music: Loudboy; cast: Deng Chao (Zhou Jing/Ziyu), Sun Li (Ai Xiao), Zheng Kai (King Peiliang), Wang Qianyuan (Yan Lu), Hu Jun (Cang Jang), Guan Xiaotong (Zhan Tian), Leo Wu (Ping Yang), Wang Jingchun (Yan Lu), Ryan Zheng (The King of Pei ); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Liu Jun/Wang Xiaozhu; Well Go USA Entertainment; 2018-China- in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“If you like sword fights you should like this wuxia film despite its confusing palace intrigues.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

If you like sword fights you should like this wuxia film despite its confusing palace intrigues. Perhaps its most striking weapon is in the inventive use of bladed umbrellas during its fabulous battle scenes (the reason for the umbrellas is because it always seems to be raining). Shadow has the epic scope of a lyrical Akira Kurosawa war film though, perhaps, not as fulfilling. It’s a work of visual beauty that suffers because of a convoluted plot (for the first hour or so the talky film confusingly introduces its characters and tries to explain the plot, but mainly keeps things murky). The film was inspired by Chinese ink-brush paintings.

The great Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (“Curse of The Golden Flower”/”Hero”/”House of Flying Daggers”) and co-writer Li Wei, wash the palette in grays and set its fictionalized tale in the ancient “Three Kingdoms” era of Chinese history. 

Years ago, the kingdom of Pei’s cowardly rotten King Peiliang (Ryan Zheng) lost the key city of Jingzhou to the kingdom of Yang after Pei’s power-hungry Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) lost a duel to the unbeatable General Cang Jang (Hu Jun). The two kingdoms have enjoyed for years a fragile truce. Commander Ziyu, however, seeks revenge and tries to goad the king into war. Ziyu, now hidden in a cave, entered only through a secret passageway from the palace, suffered greatly from the duel and is still recovering from being poisoned by his opponent’s dueling blade. With the help of his loyal wife Ai Xiao (Sun Li), Ziyu has schemed to secretly replace himself with an orphan who resembles him named Jingzhou (also Deng). He is someone Ziyu kidnapped as a child and has been training him since to take his place in battle, if needed.The hostage’s reward is if he wins he will be free to go back home to his mother. In this case to win he would have to be better than Ziyu to win. The decoy is referred to as a shadow in Chinese. Only Ai Xiao knows about the switch, as even the Pei king is kept in the dark. Though the sly king might suspect when he requests that the fake Ziyu play for him the zither, supposedly an instrument he loved playing, but the fake can’t play the zither.

The stronghold city of Jingzhou is controlled by General Yang and his son Ping (Leo Wu). In order to keep the peace the practical-minded Pei offers his beautiful sister (Guan Xiaotong) to marry Ping, though this is against her will. But Ping only wants her as his concubine, and this insult stings so much that she beats the war drums to get revenge on him.

There are many intrigues and subplots to sink your teeth into, but war is inevitable. Through the astonishing visuals in battle, in sepia and black- and- white, we are seeing a masterfully shot wuxia film. One of the spectacular shots is of Hu’s decoy facing General Yang on a raised bamboo platform in a river gorge lifted straight out of an ink drawing.

The acting honors go to Deng’s mannered performance as the real commander Zhou and his subtle sensitive one as the pretender Jing.

The production values are high thanks to production designer Horace Ma, the elaborate costumes are amazing thanks to the costume designer Chen Minzheng and the lively choreography by director Dee Dee is a special treat. The acting is overall solid by the ensemble cast. While the minimalist score from Lao Zai, aka Loudboy, truly captures the yin and yang theme sought by the filmmaker.