SHADOW (2019, Zhang Yimou)
A juicy melodrama with Shakespearean gravity, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for an aging master with three decades of experience behind him. Comfortable with pseudo-fantasy elements in historical war movies (in everything from HERO to THE GREAT WALL), Zhang is also likely engaging in some political commentary that a doltish American mind like mine is incapable of penetrating. But ignorance of the context is barely an impediment to appreciating everything else that works here — characteristically gorgeous compositions, a luscious, nearly all-grey color palette, forceful camerawork from Zhang’s longtime DP Zhao Xiaoding (Oscar nominee for HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), and two soulfully committed performances from real-life married couple Deng Chao and Sun Li.
Deng’s predicament is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA, as he plays a shadow for the dying military commander of a tenuous kingdom led by a foolish, hubristic king. Fans will also catch whiffs of Wong’s THE GRANDMASTER and Woo’s RED CLIFF in these proceedings, but what Zhang brings to the table is his peerless storytelling — the first hour is a gripping chamber drama set mostly in the Pei palace, before the much-discussed and rehearsed duel launches an action-packed back half. Rather than tossing some swordplay and arrow-shooting as chum to the masses, Zhang makes sure all of his action is motivated by the story: the duel, the Princess’s self-actualization, the siege on Jing, and the final reckoning for our protagonists. It’s all a fatalistic consequence of a plot that concerns itself with existential questions — is our identity forged by what we do or where we come from? Is an artist (represented here both by the furious zither-strumming and the balletic martial arts) born or trained, and can you fake it? Finally, do we love each other because of history, or can we fall in love by going through the motions of another?
Just because the action isn’t stylistic for style’s sake, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fucking bonkers cool. The locations and choreography would often be just enough, but Zhang throws in one of the weirdest weapons I’ve ever seen: bladed umbrellas that serve a duel role as gun and shield. Add to that the overhead shots of yin-yangs (a consistent metaphor made explicit by discussions of masculine vs. feminine), the alluring secret passage behind the palace walls, the voyeuristic stone holes, the banners and daggers and masks and robes that mark a distinct place and time, and you’ve got an exceptional entry to the Chinese period piece that reminds us the Fifth Generation isn’t ready to pack it in just yet.