Watching far too many Hollywood and Bollywood movies kind of sets your hope high for happy endings. This fan of Far Asian movies still falls for it even though I know that one of my favourite genre sets back the balance that has been tipped too high in expectations by the former genres. Shadow is a great example of how your happy-ending settings can lead you to form an end that will only be submersed by the cinema.
About Shadow, the movie and cast
Shadow is the story of how a form shapes his shadow. The form is a commander who teaches a lookalike commoner to become him without realising that in the process, he loses himself. This strategist is plagued with a debilitating wound that keeps him housebound and forces him to use a doppelganger to replace him before his king and the world. Both the disease and the teaching seem to be instrumental in them almost naturally trading places and roles. His plot to then take power and use the shadow, the king and all others as his pawns is brought to light then to shadow (yeah, yeah, it is a ridiculous pun but I refuse to not allow myself it). As the film reaches its end, I found myself hoping that the seemingly cowardly king, who revealed himself a more calculated and knowing strategist, would, as a consequence and to appease the loss of his sister, win, bringing forth and to light with him the shadow to replace the disgraced commander he looks like.
Shadow (Chinese: 影) is a 2018 Chinese fiction movie. It is known as a wuxia, a Chinese movie genre retelling the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Zhang Yimou direct this quiet epic. The director is known for the movies “Hero“, “House of Flying Daggers“ and “Curse of the Golden Flower“. He showcases again that he does not just do action. The time and care put in his wuxia is a real hommage to martial arts and its heroes. He enlists Huen-Chiu Ku credited as Dee Dee and also known as Dee Dee Ku for a highly creative choreography involving a very innovative use of umbrellas for the action scenes, in both attack, defense, formation and transportation.
It is only befitting that the main characters in this wuxia are based on Chinese folk heroes from the tripartite China era of 220-280 AD. The country was divided into three states, Wei, Shu, and Wu.
Deng Chao plays the main roles, starring both as Commander Ziyu and as his shadow Jingzhou. His acting and the makeup (and maybe also the fact that the commander spends a lot of time in the shadow of his hair as if it were the symbol of his past glory, an interesting parallel with the time when the shadow cuts off his own hair before the king) greatly highlights the differences between the two men. The former is a sickly man looking down on life and growing entitled by the royalties of his past glories and the owning of a man. The latter is a healthy man looking at life at eye-level, humbled by his position, and the debt towards his jailer. The commander is based on real-life Chinese military general and strategist Zhou Yu whose battle victories were instrumental in establishing the Sun Quan’s regime, that later becomes the Wu state. Actress Sun Li excels in the role of Commander Ziyu’s wife, Xiao Ai. Her character is based on Xiao Qiao, the youngest of the Qiao sisters who indeed married Zhou Yu.
Zheng Kai plays the seemingly whimsical and definitely selfish King Peiliang who appears to be oblivious to the happenings in his palace. He soon reveals himself to be quite knowledgeable and calculating. King Peiliang is based on Sun Quan aka Emperor Da of Wu, founder of the Wu state. His military general Tian Zhan played by Chinese actor Wang Qianyuan parralels Wu military general Lü Meng who inspired it. His sister, Princess Qingping, is also the Wu king’s real life sister, Lady Sun. Actress Guan Xiaotong brings her to life (and death I guess, or should I say the film writer does) in this wuxia. General Lu Yan and his son Yang Ping are the antagonists in the territorial battle over Jing City. They are portrayed by actors Wang Jingchun and Leo Wu and respectively represent military generals Lu Su and Guan Ping).
Visual and emotional art
The film is subtly artistic, be it visually or proverbially. It plays on and showcases dualities, the least being the drawn yin and yang symbols literally appearing throughout the scenes. However, the yin and yang theme extends beyond the obvious. It is weaved into the depths of the story meaning and is embedded in the look and feel of the set. This includes its colours or monochromatic tones as it were, and goes from the beds to the battlefield, from the palace to the streets, from the commoner’s garments to those of the commander. It is shown from its cinematography to its photography, from the camera angles to the characters’ expressions, from the battles to the verbal exchanges. It appears in the weather, as the artistic direction and special effects makes rain an accomplice to the winning battle formations, the feminine martial dance.
It displays in the decor as a natural landscape background and the natural grounds for the duel and other fights, the roof or if you will the sky for the hidden attackers. The Chinese Ink and Wash Brush Paint palette accentuates the ‘colour’ choices but also revendicates the China settings as if this were not merely a fight between yin and yang. Watching this movie gradually makes you realise that nothing is left to fate, a form of control that is ironic considering what happens to the two main strategists in the movie.
It is quite remarkable all the same. Little details appear like the shadow not being able to sleep at night and needing the light on to feel like he exists outside of his fear. The mention elaborates as it is revealed that he is afraid of the dark, the silence, the nothing as well as when he asks the question: who am I? The way the commander handles the shadow and the way his wife does are also striking opposites. The former uses duty, loyalty and such constructs that human institutions have created to survive. The latter uses, in spite of herself, love and strike a more engaging, sustaining and lasting bond. Their relationship is born in the shadows and slowly moves towards the light. Interestingly, until the end, the movie does not answer the question of whether it is a happy ending. It is always more a matter of light and shadow as if in their measure lies the pursuit of happiness. The end presents us with her at the door, in the proverbial shadows of the palace as it were, with the knowledge of the truth, a king and a husband dead. On the other side, is the rest of the world, including the shadow’s now in the light, waiting in theory for her to decide his future.
Even the material they wear matters. Even without colour, the viewer can still notice the difference between the silk material with the ointment that is handed over by the commander’s wife and the shadow’s cloth, the beds, bedding and more. Everything works in balance to make the movie a visually humble feast. It is like watching great art but without its usual side-effects of pompousness. I had almost forgotten how creative Chinese cinema can be. I had been watching a streak of goofy Chinese art that made me forget my woes but also that there were the beautiful types that I liked and longed for when my mind was free enough to perceive the harmonious synergy of its philosophical depths and superficial beauty.
The dance of the parallels and repeats
Throughout the film, you have a sense of deja vu, for lack of a better term. The position that the commander strikes when he teaches the shadow to defeat their common enemy is a reminder of what he had to face in the battle that cost him his health and is also shown again as Lu Yan assumes it again with the commander’s doppelganger. There is a constant yin and yang literal or discursive positioning of characters. It is obvious in duels and twosome conversations, with the rest of the characters, when present, appearing as a background.
The yin and yang parallels also appear in the character portraits. There are shadows in the light and light in the shadows, just like the dots in the yin and yang symbolisation. The wife is dressed in light but she is always in the shadow. This shows as she is always presented in relationship to someone else, from the princess with whom she appears first to the commander to his shadow. Even the wining idea she has must first be submitted for approval to her husband before being told to the world and even then she is not recognised as its creative source. It is not even clear what her motivations are towards the shadow. Is she obeying her husband when she sleeps with his lookalike? The commander did say that Jingzhou’s win depended on his shadow believing he could win. Maybe, she thought that a great motivation, on top of finding his mother, would be to know that she is waiting for him at the other end of that struggle.
There is balance in the protagonists’ fates too. His arrogance condemns Ziyu to the shadows where he had kept Jingzhou all his life, first in the form of his housebound lockdown then in the mask that covers his face as he dies. For all his martial knowledge, it is his wife’s skill that saves the day, relegating him to the shadows once more. His whimsically selfish calculations cost the king the life and throne he protected more than his city and sister and he was terminated by the pair that he uncovered and sent to the shadows in which he meant to keep them.
The shadows’ captives who were held behind a veil of silence are given the opportunity to rise to the light after watching their prisoners’ arrogance lead them to madness and eventually death. Will they lead parallel or repeat lives after the example shown to them, now they have regained control over their lives? Will Xiao Ai keep the secret like her husband did or tell the truth? Will Jingzhou grow arrogant and mad like his jailer became or will he be humble and loyal (the question beckons, loyal to whom anyway)?
What I did not like
Having warned you of my expectations, I will now relate what i did not like in the movie in spite of knowing better.
Let’s start with Princess Qingping. The king’s sister was wasted. Although she also played a role illustrating the title, as the wise shadow of her brother, that role was nowhere near developed enough. She ended up just looking like a brat, wounded in her honour rather than the strategist hidden behind her recommendations to her brother. She clearly stood against her brother’s choices and could see through his selfish motivations, she rightfully felt insulted and expressed it at being even considered as a concubine, she put her life at risk to protect a commander, and more. She was ‘man enough; to fight for herself and what she believed in, rather than waiting for a saviour to do it on her behalf, and was the weapon, as much as his dagger, that killed the future of the Yan family and the . Even her brother saw her as a rival, hiding what he knew or decided from her and not mentioning a word about her part in winning back the coveted city. She could have easily come out of the shadows of her brother to lead.
My second beef is with the treatment Xiao Ai. is The commander’s wife could have have been used much earlier in the strategy. Biding her time was worthy of her rank but considering how her strategy was ultimately the key to defeating the enemy, she gave very little time for it to be approved and mastered. In spite of wearing light (white), she is one very much in the shadow. We don’t know if her motivations for sleeping with the shadow are his resemblance with her husband, although if you ask my opinion, his emotional weaknesses in spite of
Don’t get me wrong. It probably befits the era that women are indeed in the shadow. And the film brings them to light with both ladies being the strategists that win the battle and even in the end decide the fate of the protagonists. But ending the film in the indecision of Xiao Ai and the unnecessary quasi-suicide of the princess kind of undermine their aforementioned wit.
I have excused the expositionary dialogues in Asian movies including Japanese anime more than in Western cinema. I believe it is because they feel so much intrinsic to the way things are done in the Far East and the films I grew up watching. But I should not have made that difference. Watching this today made me realise it is a sin in any language and a habit of which to get rid. It is present and frown-inducing, right from the unnecessary introductory narrative contextualisation text to the expositionary dialogue between commander and shadow. Granted, the former does establish a contextual framework to the historical parallels of the movies but this only gives gravitas if it affects the meaning of the plot while you are watching the movie (rather than researching it afterwards), which I believe it does not. Of course, I cannot quite say how many of my upcoming multiple rewatches (and there will certainly be a few) will prove me wrong but that does not diminish the point I make.
It is easy to see parallels with the Man in the Iron Mask. Trading twins for doppelgangers does not make this film original. What does is the time and care clearly put in the storyline, the character development, the visual display, the fact that the inventive choreographies are not limited to the battles, but seem to extend to the positions of everything from the characters in conversation to the backgrounds, grounds and even the timing of the weather. This is not just a movie. This is not just a wuxia. This is a celebration of creative China from its martial artists to its movie artists via its heroes. This is the demonstration that there is no limit to creativity when an idea bursts in us and we take the time, love and care to do it right. Serving action and visual effects on a bed of yin and yang, dripping feminism in battle strategy from behind the period’s veil, finding light in the shadows, are as many ways this film rekindles faith in the power that art has in minding life. Not a minute is insignificant and I applaude the respect that is given the audience’s time, appreciation in this nearly two hours of wuxia-reinvented history movie. A well-deserved 8.2 out of 10.
PS: At the time of writing, Shadow is being streamed on Netflix