Starring: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Ryan Zheng
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running Time: 116 mins
Shadow is a Chinese film about the rivalry between nations and court figures in a tense period at the height of the Three Kingdoms Period.
Ever the master of spectacle, director Zhang Yimou delivers a visually striking action thriller in the form of Shadow. But more than just a pretty face, the film overcomes generic wuxia tropes with genuinely engrossing depth, tension and intrigue throughout, ultimately proving just as gripping as it is eye-catching.
There’s a lot that makes Shadow a captivating watch, but the visuals are without a doubt the standout part of it all. Bathed in icy grey at every moment, the film uses unique and modern colour grading techniques to great effect, both making for an eye-catching watch as well as developing an effective atmosphere.
Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (who worked on the equally fantastic House Of Flying Daggers) pull all the stops out to make sure that Shadow is the perfect blend of potent atmosphere and cinematic spectacle.
Particularly in its early stages, the visuals are used to great effect to deepen the sense of tension that surrounds the political machinations playing out in the court of a regional king. Although the screenplay isn’t quite as sleek from the start, the film’s visual style plays a huge part in creating real, uneasy tension and intrigue.
And it’s that which ultimately becomes the backbone of the story, as we watch a complex game of loyalty and betrayal play out against the backdrop of shifting power dynamics, all made just that little bit more tense by the icy grey visuals.
The film’s focus on political intrigue is also one of the reasons that it really stands out as a great wuxia movie. While there is fantastic action here (which is of course drop-dead gorgeous), it’s not all the film has to show off, and actually serves an important narrative purpose in that game of political intrigue.
With the exception of one or two fight sequences that push the bounds of reality a little too far, there’s something pleasingly down-to-earth and rational about the action here, particularly when compared to the hyper-theatrical likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
So, instead of just marvelling at spectacular martial arts, Shadow rests significantly on the depth of its political tale, one that provides engrossing and unpredictable intrigue and tension right to the last minute.
The only caveat for the story is its relative lack of emotional power, never really hitting you where it hurts at its most dramatic moments. That leaves the film’s finale – while undeniably engrossing – feeling a little underwhelming, particularly given the sense of stakes that director Zhang and the lead actors’ performances seem to place on it.
Overall, though, Shadow is an excellent watch. It’s the sort of film to get into with the gorgeous visuals, and to stick around for the enthralling story. It’s not perfect, and certainly lacks a real dramatic punch, but the combination of its stunning cinematography and intriguing plot make for a gripping watch throughout, so that’s why I’m giving it a 7.8.