Famous Fifth Generation Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s latest wuxia tale based in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history is about power, intrigue and survival, and the common man’s role in the affairs of the mighty. What stands out, though, is the film’s stunning visual style and spectacular action sequences.
Yin and yang, the concept of complementary forces coming together to form a powerful whole, is an idea that pervades Shadow in both style and content. Visually, the film is so unique as to be almost distracting in its early moments as the viewer’s eyes pour over and adjust to its monochrome palette. Drawing from the style of Chinese ink brush paintings, and aided by the rain that pours constantly, the film has a watery, fluid look and texture, each exquisite frame a moving painting.
The film’s first half primarily transpires indoors within the royal quarters with key actors robed in and surrounded by luxuriant, delicately embroidered fabric in varying combinations of black, white and grey and among gauzy, luminous screens, charcoal walls and a taichi board on the predictions of which the future of the Kingdom of Pei hangs. And yet, the stylized, perfect beauty of the black and white frames is humanised by the inclusion of the natural warm colours of human skin and later blood and food.
The taichi diagram is a recurring symbol and a giant rendition of it the site of the film’s first masterfully choreographed fight. As our hero, the strong and noble Jing (Deng Chao) who is the title’s ‘shadow’ or body double employed by the kingdom’s ailing and crafty Commander Yu (also Deng), prepares to battle a near-invincible enemy, the Commander’s wife referred to here as ‘Madam’ (Sun Li) offers him a clever solution.
The umbrella, an essentially feminine object, along with swift feminine movements, she demonstrates, could be used to combat General Yang’s (Hu Jun) powerful spear. Her technique is not only imbibed by Jing in the film’s climactic showdown but also is the weapon of choice, albeit more customized, of the army led by the Princess (Guan Xiaotong) that surreptitiously arrives to reoccupy their city. Just as the two women hold their own within the internal walls of their own kingdom, showing more courage and independence of thought than their male counterparts, their presence and resourcefulness are felt in the traditional masculine external battle spaces as well. Indeed, they are instrumental in winning the men their war. Feminine strategy and spirit combine with male strength to form one formidable whole.
Existing alongside the film’s central motifs of balance, duality and doubling are ideas of real and fake. Just as real and decoy moves occupy the discussions around military strategy, Jing too is a decoy facing adversity and possible death in the place of the real Commander who hides inside the castle’s chambers. The film’s loyalties however lie with its brave ordinary hero who scales insurmountable odds to save his cunning and weak high-born masters. Madam too who in a sense grounds the film with her quiet strength and intelligence, ultimately chooses her decoy husband over the real one. “You’re more like the Commander than he is,” Jing is told at one point, an issue that the film hastens to rectify.
Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star 2018 runs from 25 Oct-1 Nov. mumbaifilmfestival.com