Monday, 15 October 2018

The Current Cinema - Peter Hourigan enjoys SHADOW (Zhang Yimou, China, 2018)

It’s about thirty years since Zhang Yimou was the darling of the art-house scene with films like Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern.   When he struck out into the wuxia genre of films about martial heroes, complete with incredible (literally) duels with leaps over buildings and triple somersaults with sword or spear ready, in films like Hero (2002) he started to lose that audience, though still being prolific and diversifying into activities such as directing the opening and closely ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
His 2016 film The Great Wall was intended to bring together the Beijing and Hollywood film worlds, but was largely rejected by critics as well as audiences in Asia and other important markets.  Now, he has returned with Shadow.   This was screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival in September, and has now crept into Australian cinemas via the Chinese circuit.
I’m not really a great fan of the wuxia genre. And there are elements of this, as this summary shows:
Deng Chao, Shadow
Pei is ruled by a wild, dangerous king (Zheng Kai). The king's military commander (Deng Chao) has fought bravely on the battlefield, but needs unique strategies to survive treachery in the king's court. He has cultivated a "shadow" (also played by Deng), a look-alike who can fool the king, as well as Pei's enemies, when deception proves necessary. Seeking final victory over a rival kingdom for control of the walled city of Jing, the king and the commander plot a secret attack. In training with his wife (Sun Li), the commander devises unconventional, lethal ways to use Pei's signature weapons and shields. The stage is set for an unprecedented battle.
However, I had a good time with this.  It is not the exotic ethnic or serious historic settings of his earlier film. We have our heroes and our villains and our external enemies.  What’s relevant is that it’s ‘period’ though the period itself doesn’t matter. Perhaps we will later on have intellectual readings of the doubling of the main hero.  It’s a lovely device, for the Commander to have a double who can be there to take any arrows or poison, and by the end we’re perhaps not really sure (or bothered) who is really being the hero, the Commander or his double.
Much of my delight came simply from looking at the film.  You can’t really say it has an overall grey palette, because that could be taken to mean that all colour has been desaturated. But it’s not really that.  It is just that it is a very grey (and white) world, like a piece of fabric woven from different shades of grey and white. 
There are no trees or grass or flowers. The soldiers are all in grey metallic armour. The women wear robes in various greys and whites. There are some spectacular views from the palace up one of the gorges, which we often see with brown cliffs and verdant greens dotting here and there under a bright blue sky. But when we look down the valley of the gorge, it is raining and misty, and everything is swamped by that.
But because it’s not desaturated but rather this rich grey colouring, when we have blood – and we do have blood – the impact is powerful. Early in the film the Commander and his double need to strip to the waist, so that the double can have a wound matching that of the Commander. Their flesh glows a palpable healthy pink in this moment.  Later there are also several wonderful moments (no spoilers here) when splotches of colour impact on us.
Find the trailer on Youtube, Shadow
The climactic battle is not at the film’s end, as we might expect.  And that is a lot of fun, with some wonderful invention. A duel takes place on a large yin and yang emblazoned structure constructed somewhat perilously over the raging torrent between the steep sides of the gorge. Meanwhile, an attack is also taking place elsewhere. Not only do we need to let the women lead, we also have them armed with some wonderful weapons.   You’ll never look at umbrellas in the same way.
And after the battle, all is not settled. Zhang has a couple of delectable twists up his sleeve for us. 
I enjoyed it.

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