Zhang Yimou Returns to Martial Arts Cinema with Shadow

Shadow had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Back in the early to mid ’00s, it seemed like every Asian arthouse director was making a martial arts or wuxia film. Some of those films (e.g., Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) were huge successes, while others (e.g., Chen Kaige’s The Promise) were not. Arguably the finest film in this wuxia wave was Zhang Yimou’s Hero, a sweeping epic that boasted a star-studded cast (Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi) and combined thrilling fight scenes with gorgeous visuals and a moving (if controversial) storyline.

Following Hero, Yimou made two more wuxia films, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, before returning to smaller films like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and A Simple Noodle Story. But his latest film Shadow finds Yimou returning to the sort of visually stunning and highly stylized filmmaking that typified Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Here’s a synopsis:

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.

For the film’s visual inspiration, Yimou looked to traditional Chinese ink wash painting, hence Shadow’s stark and predominantly monochrome palette.

Shadow had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, and has received some solid reviews:

  • Leonardo Goi calls it “a film of visual charms” and “a bombastic martial arts wuxia replete with duels of breath-taking beauty that will please longtime Zhang acolytes and newbies alike.”
  • Kambole Campbell criticizes the film’s first act, but describes its final act “an enthralling, inventive, rapturous descent into utter madness” and ultimately calls Shadow “an incredibly watchable, raucous experiment.”
  • Finally, Ryland Aldrich finds the film a bit confusing, but praises the film’s “hyper stylized visual tactics” and calls it an interesting progression of Yimou as a filmmaker.

Well Go USA has acquired the North American rights to Shadow, and will give the film a limited theatrical release in early 2019 (don’t let me down, Alamo Drafthouse), followed by home and digital video releases.

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