Shadow is a stylish and operatic martial arts epic, according to Dan Slevin.
I’m not sure that there’s any genre of cinema that demonstrates changing trends and industry developments more than the wuxia movie. Back around Christmas of 2000, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon saw days of sold out sessions at Wellington’s Paramount – a big theatre – but that might have been the peak of interest in Asian cinema from arthouse audiences.
Now, a big budget historical martial arts epic from one of China’s most renowned directors goes straight to home video without passing Go and without even collecting some festival screenings.
The film is called Shadow and the director is Yang Zhimou whose films have been Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe-nominated for decades. Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, even the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony – he generally operates at the highest level.
Even his most recent release in New Zealand, The Great Wall (which starred Matt Damon as a Western mercenary in imperial China), was a lot of fun even if audiences didn’t always agree.
Shadow is a much more dramatic affair but it still has a lot of the wonderful design whimsy that featured in The Great Wall – amazingly unlikely weaponry like weaponised parasols that can defend the owner but also spin razor sharp blades in the direction of an enemy with a vigorous spin.
The film is set in Three Kingdoms-era China. Two neighbouring kingdoms share an uneasy peace after a war saw one (Pei) lose the strategic city of Jingzhou to the other (Yang). The king of Pei (Zheng Kai) is young and appears to be more interested in artistic pursuits like calligraphy than restoring his kingdom. His generals – especially one known as Commander – are unhappy at this and agitate for a change of policy.
The selling point of Shadow is the spectacular battle sequences, superbly choreographed and shot in a kind of grim monotone dictated by the dark and rainy skies, occasionally lit up with flashes of blood from some unfortunate or other, but the film takes fully two-thirds of its time getting to all that.
The build-up is operatically dramatic and suspenseful. There’s a lot of pouting and shouting but eventually the intricacies of Commander’s plan become clear even though you know that there will be some twists and turns along the way.
Shadow is a terrific film showcasing a veteran director who knows exactly what they are doing. It has big emotions and big sweeping set-pieces and I enjoyed it a lot.
Shadow is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Madman Entertainment.