Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made beautiful period films like RAISE THE RED LANTERN and JU DO, my two personal favourites. But often the beauty of the films take over the narrative resulting in pretty empty pieces like his foray into martial art epics. Martial art epics should be excited with fast and furious executed action segments, not moving in slow motion showing the choreography of the moves. Films like HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS end up like empty pretty vessels. Yimou’s SHADOW again is a beautifully shot period pieces set in ancient China, but thankfully has a stronger plot with little martial arts.
The story concerns a king and his commander, the commander’s wife and the king’s sister. It is a four-handler set in a period epic. In an empire ruled by thus wild and dangerous young king (Zheng Kai), the court is a hive of politicking and treachery. The monarch’s brave military commander (Deng Chao) has cultivated a secret weapon to aid his survival: a “shadow,” (and hence the film title) a lookalike who can fool both his enemies and the king himself as the commander prepares for a dangerous final assault against the forces of a rival kingdom. There is no real villain in the film. The Yangs of the rival Kingdom could also be the good guys and the Pei Kingdom the bad guys – interchangeable.
One wonders about the soundtrack and score. If at first to denote tension, the soundtrack works. Overuse of the same in repetition in this case in the film renders the soundtrack really annoying after a while.
Most of the actors are unrecognizable in North America but are all quite the good lookers, both male and female. The production sets particularly the Pei Palace and the costumes are also a feast for the eyes. The young actors are not very good, overacting or looking as if they are trying too hard half the time. What the film is lacks is an effective dramatic content that connects the audience with the plot.
The film is quite male oriented that might defend the other gender. The sister mistreated as second class, offered as a concubine. The commander’s wife has little say in things and has to suppress her romantic emotions.
For a fight film, the action sequences do not make up the majority of the film nor are they particularly exciting. Do not expect an action packed film from this director. A few action sequences though not that many, are still executed in slow motion. But the fight segments that include special effects, especially fo the steel umbrellas and their blades are impressive.
Yimou had been the Chinese director to watch when he first came on the scene with his muse Gong Li. His newer works including SHADOW have never reached the heights of films like JU DOU, RED SORGHUM, RAISE THE RED LANTERN or even the lesser THE STORY OF QIU JU.
The film has a limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and should be seen onto big screen.