Turns out Jordan Peele is not the only director this year offering a movie about a subterranean look-alike plotting against unsuspecting surface dwellers.
Now comes Zhang Yimou and Shadow, the director’s new, unsurprisingly gorgeous wuxia extravaganza about an unstable king (Zheng Kai) and his Machiavellian military commander (Deng Chao). As the movie opens, the commander is urging an attack on a warlord occupying one of the kingdom’s cities. Acting on his own initiative, he has challenged the leader of the occupying army to a single combat duel, winner take all. Sort of. The guy who issues the challenge is actually the commander’s double, and this is not spoiler, as it’s all laid out in the prologue, and also the title. The real commander (also Deng), who lives in a secret chamber below the king’s castle, refers to the stand-in as his shadow.
It actually helps to know a bit about this setup going in, since one suspects the clunky subtitles do not capture important dramatic nuance — there’s an early sequence of the king demanding a musical performance that makes more sense when you understand the layers of deception involved.
These scenes also include a supernatural forecast of things to come — the movie is drawn from Chinese myth but is very Shakespearean. Two women cast stones, and the signs tell them to resign themselves to a masculine world. Zhang has a great deal of fun exposing the irony of that prediction. There is a subplot that has the enraged, fearful king sending an emissary to cancel the proposed duel, then offering his own sister (Guan Xiaotong) as a peace offering.
She is displeased, to say the least, and while she does not openly defy her brother, we anticipate pushback. The commander’s own wife (Sun Li), meanwhile, finds herself in an interesting situation, caught between her increasingly sickly original husband and the healthy, handsome exact duplicate “shadow” who lies next to her at night, keeping up appearances.
The movie is romantic and sexy, and its exploration of the masculine and feminine (fire and water, yin and yang) is inventive and playful. The commander’s resourceful wife suggests a new way to counteract the invulnerable fighting style of their undefeated opponents — “feminine” moves that involve novel use of a parasol.
What follows is surely the best use of an umbrella since Singin’ in the Rain. It should be noted that the umbrella is composed of interwoven blades that fly off and serve as projectiles, but, still, it’s an umbrella.
It all gets very bloody, but the violence is secondary to the movie’s ravishing beauty, even with drenching rains and a restricted palette of blacks, whites, and shimmering silvers. The costumes, sets, and props are to die for. What a handsome sword that is, sticking between that poor guy’s ribs.
Shadow. Directed by Zhang Yimou. With Deng Chao, Guan Xiaotong, Sun Li and Zheng Kai. Distributed by WellGo USA.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 mins.
Parents’ guide: Not rated.