'Shadow' ('Ying'): Film Review | Venice 2018

'Shadow' set photography by Xiaoyan Bai; Courtesy of Perfect Village Entertainment
Stunning.

The latest gorgeously mounted period film from Zhang Yimou ('Hero,' 'House of Flying Daggers') was inspired by the yin-and-yang symbol and Chinese ink-brush painting.

A decoy military commander battles his way through personal, political as well as extremely physical power games in Shadow (Ying), with which the gifted Chinese director Zhang Yimou bounces back after his epic letdown The Great Wall (aka Matt Damon’s Ponytail: The Movie). This is, for the most part, a more intimate historical picture that combines palace intrigue with a few moments of the top-notch action choreography we’ve come to expect from the director of wuxia fests such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. But the real star of the show here is the strikingly gorgeous, often almost bi-chrome visual universe, inspired by the tai chi diagram — more commonly known in the West as yin-and-yang symbol — and traditional ink-brush painting, with its distinct combination of rich blacks and fluid shades of gray.

Though perhaps a little too talky to become a monster hit, this unexpected combination of constantly wondrous production design and lethal Chinese umbrellas could click commercially in art houses with the right marketing. After its world premiere in Venice, it’ll have its North American bow in Toronto as a gala presentation.

The script, based on a previous screenplay by Zhu Sujin and credited to Li Wei and the director, reimagines a part of the Three Kingdoms epic as the story of the cunning military commander Yu (Deng Chao) of the Pei Kingdom. After having been so badly hurt in battle that he has to retreat into the shadows so as not to show his physical failings, Commander Yu entrusts his job to Jing (also Deng), a lookalike in perfect health who is indebted to him and who is named after a city the kingdom has lost. By employing a body double, the Pei Kingdom won’t show any outward signs of weakness, though apart from Jing and Yu’s own wife, referred to as Madam (Sun Li), no one knows about the switch, not even Pei’s young king (Zheng Kai). In a tense early scene that only makes sense a little later on, the ruler risks finding out when he commands “Yu” to play the zither, which is impossible because Jing might look like Yu, but unlike the latter, he can’t play the ancient instrument.  

Politically, the Pei Kingdom finds itself in a very difficult position, as foreign forces have occupied the city of Jing and the frosty relations with General Yang (Hu Jun) and his son Ping (Leo Wu), who control the stronghold, could tip over into war. Hoping to establish a truce and regain some influence, the sovereign offers the hand of his beautiful sister (Guan Xiaotong) to Ping, though this is against her will. Like the fate of Yu’s wife, the tragedy of the princess is one that is expressed mostly in looks and gestures. Unlike in a lot of the films of Zhang, who has discovered actresses such as Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, the women here are not the leads and do not seem to control their own destiny. That said, their wishes and desires, such as the fact Madam seems more enamored of Jing — a passionate kiss is as elaborately choreographed as any fight scene — than her real husband, do add texture and narrative tension.

Zhang takes his time to sketch the background and political context and to introduce the characters, which makes the early going a surprisingly talky affair. It takes over a half-hour before we get a brief first fight in the commander’s hiding place, only reachable through a secret passageway from the palace. With formidable black rock formations and with the tai chi diagram on the floor in black and white stones as a backdrop, the clash unfolds with the agility and grace familiar from Zhang’s wuxia films. 

Adding another element, literally, is the fact that it never seems to stop raining. This makes the dancelike choreography — courtesy of action director Dee Dee (Tarantino’s Kill Bill) — look more spectacular as hair and flowing garments are weighed down and drops of water bounce off people and their armaments. But it is also significant in other ways. Chiefly, the weapon of choice is a variation on a traditional oil-paper umbrella, which can protect from the rain but is more often associated with women and with being decorative than with weapons or with men. Water as an element is identified with femininity as well and is represented in the yin-and-yang symbol by the part that is as black as the rocks against which this first fight unfolds. Not coincidentally, then, it becomes a mantra for the men to fight “with a feminine touch,” representing the drop of (female) black in the (male) white part of the yin and yang symbol.

As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Yu is orchestrating a complex plan that involves not only his own decoy — referred to as a “shadow” in Chinese — but also the king and the mysterious Captain Tian (Wang Qianyuan), who controls an army of misfits. The most spectacular setpiece is the siege of the city of Jing. In a one-on-one fight, Yu’s decoy faces General Yang on a raised bamboo platform in a river gorge straight out of an ink drawing. Meanwhile, Tian’s men invade the city and deploy umbrellas made out of semicircular blades of iron (an element that's associated with men), allowing them to be used not only as weapons but also, in the feature’s single most stunning image, as coracles. It is nothing short of dazzling to see a hundred men in tiny individual vessels simultaneously whooshing downhill on Jing’s main road, which has practically turned into a waterfall thanks to the heavy rainfall.

After this succession of spectacular images, with the nearly black-and-white visuals occasionally streaked red with blood, which is then immediately diluted by the continuous precipitation, the third act feels visually somewhat disappointing. Jing’s visit to his mother’s house and a subsequent attack there, for example, lack the Zhang pizzazz and ditto several swordfights back at the palace as the story draws to a close. For Western tastes, Deng’s performance as the power-hungry commander might also feel slightly too mannered and over the top, especially compared to his beautifully subdued work as Jing, which is all calm facades hiding his inner strength. 

But these are minor quibbles given the fact that this is probably the most stunningly beautiful film Zhang has made. The surprise factor perhaps plays a role, as the director is so well known for his use of color, from Raise the Red Lantern to Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower. But this color-drained spectacle is visually ravishing from start to finish as well, with a special mention for costume designer Chen Minzheng’s intricate headgear for the women, made of black lacquer and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Possibly even more eye-catching are the innumerable black, white and grey robes, which all look hand-painted in the style of Chinese ink drawings. The translucent windscreens in the king’s palace received a similar treatment, with production designer Ma Kwong Wing (aka Horace Ma) outdoing himself both in the interiors and many rain-soaked exteriors. 

Completing the package is the quietly minimalist score from Lao Zai, aka Loudboy, who has taken the theme of yin and yang to heart as well, constantly weaving together the sound of a zither and a flute.   

Production companies: Perfect Village Entertainment, LeVision Pictures, Tencent Pictures 
Cast: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Li Wei, Zhang Yimou, based on a screenplay by Zhu Sujin
Producers: Ellen Eliasoph, Zhang Zhao, Pang Miwei, Liu Jun, Wang Xiaozhu
Executive producers: Lian Jie, Zhang Zhao, Edward Cheng 
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: Ma Kwong Wing
Costume designer: Chen Minzheng
Action director: Dee Dee
Editor: Zhou Xiaolin
Music: Loudboy
Sales: Bloom Media
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

In Mandarin
No rating, 116 minutes