Shadow shines with surprises

Sun Li plays Commander Zi Yu's wife, Xiao Ai, in Shadow.
Sun Li plays Commander Zi Yu's wife, Xiao Ai, in Shadow.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

REVIEW / PERIOD ACTION DRAMA

SHADOW (NC16)

116 minutes/Opens today/ 4 stars

The story: The king of Pei (Zheng Kai) is content with the status quo and has no plans to take back the territory of Jingzhou. So, he is furious when commander Zi Yu (Deng Chao) challenges Jingzhou's general Yang Cang (Hu Jun) to a duel. But the commander appearing in public is actually Jing Zhou (also played by Deng), the shadow of an injured and much-aged Zi Yu, who plots from behind the scenes. The commander's wife, Xiao Ai (Sun Li), is the only other person who knows this secret.

Shadow, well, overshadowed the field when the nominations for the prestigious Golden Horse Awards were announced earlier this month.

It was the most nominated film with 12 nods, including for Best Feature Film and Best Director for acclaimed Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou, whose works include Red Sorghum (1987) and Curse Of The Golden Flower (2006).

Its chances are likely strongest in the categories of Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects.

In Hero (2002), Zhang gave audiences a wuxia film awash in hues of red, green, blue, black and white. Think of Shadow as its counterpoint. Everything has been leached of colour here, but it is not a black-and-white movie as skin tones are depicted.

The monochromatic palette is stunning and in scenes where the mountains loom in the rain, it is like looking at a Chinese ink painting come to life.

Like the still-showing American thriller Searching - in which the action unfolds entirely on the screens of computers and mobile devices - the film-maker takes a central visual idea and runs with it, one that reinforces and amplifies the story.

A shadow, as explained in the movie, is a body double employed by kings and nobles to thwart assassins. The black-and-white palette is a play on actual shadows and also intimates a shadowy world of deception and manipulation.

Actor Deng (The Mermaid, 2016) pulls double duty here as the ambitious but physically ailing Zi Yu as well as his strapping stand-in Jing Zhou.

The relationship between commander and shadow is a complicated one. It is born of an uncanny resemblance between two unrelated people and is wholly unequal, as the commander wields all the power and the shadow can only yield.

Little wonder that Jing Zhou, named after the territory Zi wants to claim back, has an existential crisis. Who is he apart from being a shadow? Can a shadow have agency?

Actress Sun (The Legend Of Zhen Huan, 2011) plays with restraint the torn wife thrust between her ravaged husband and a virile, look-alike version of him, adding an emotional dimension to the political intrigue.

The real-life couple of Deng and Sun are both up for Golden Horse acting awards.

Zhang also works in some gorgeous shot-in-the-rain fight scenes - the film is up for Best Action Choreography - as well as an unusual mode of attack.

The denouement goes on for quite a bit, but there are enough surprises to keep Shadow from stretching out for too long.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2018, with the headline 'Shadow shines with surprises'. Print Edition | Subscribe