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Shadow (2018)

Okay, folks. Today’s blog entry is about a war movie/revenge thriller with political subplots, and it’s a foreign film from China. Strap in and pay attention, because shit’s about to get convoluted.

The premise to Shadow (2018) begins with three warring kingdoms, one of which we’ll never see. The other two joined in a tenuous alliance against their mutual adversary, the third kingdom. Peace between the two reluctant allies has been quite stable, aside from the contentious border town of Jing City. One kingdom has it, the other kingdom wants it, and the kingdom that wants it is led by a spineless git (King Peiliang, played by Zheng Kai) who will happily let the other kingdom take whatever they want if it means keeping the peace.

Got all that? Good, because this is where things get complicated.

Our protagonist is Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao), a fabled war hero who famously survived a seemingly fatal injury in Peiliang’s service. Except that our protagonist isn’t actually the commander, but a strong and healthy lookalike named Jingzhou. The real commander (also played by Chao) is hiding away somewhere, slowly dying of his war injuries, secretly coaching the impostor who’s taking his place. As you might imagine, this leads to an awkward kind of love triangle, as Madam Xiao Ai (Sun Li) publicly presents herself as the wife of the fake Ziyu while she’s still married to the real Ziyu.

The commander and his proxy are both native to Jing City and want to see it reclaimed by its proper kingdom. Thus the fake Ziyu challenges the other kingdom’s commander to a duel, with the fate of Jing City at stake. As punishment for acting so brashly and without authorization, the king strips Ziyu of rank and sends him off as a simple commoner. The king then proceeds to try and marry off his sister (Princess Qingping, played by Guan Xiaotong) to mend bridges with the other kingdom. And all of this is part of the real Ziyu’s (possibly suicidal) plot to overthrow the kingdom and restore Jing City to its former glory.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Yet the filmmakers keep all of the plotting and politics crystal clear. It’s really quite impressive how the filmmakers can tell such a multifaceted and multilayered story with only two hours’ runtime, and make it all comprehensive enough that even a foreign-language audience can understand it.

A huge part of that is in the visuals, and that’s where this movie proves itself to be something truly groundbreaking.

From start to finish, the movie has an obsessively monochrome color palette. Yes, we’ve got some color from the actors’ skin, as well as the ground and greenery in some shots, yet even those earthy colors are all aggressively muted. Everything else in this movie — the sets, the props, the costumes, everything — is in black and white and various shades of grey. I know that sounds terribly boring, but it’s nothing short of magical how much the filmmakers can do with all the numerous shades of black and white. There’s no possible way I could describe the textures, patterns, and movements involved in the visual style of this picture, but the effect is spellbinding in its meticulous presentation.

Moreover, the movie has a very distinct yin-yang motif, playing into the recurring theme of balance. Of course we also see this in the two opposing kingdoms, but we also see it in the movie’s ingenious clashes of male/female and water/fire. What makes it even more compelling is when the characters’ true motives are made known, the film’s binary morality starts to break down, and the characters have to make some painfully difficult choices.

This brings me to the other noteworthy color in this movie’s palette: Red.

Somewhere around the halfway point, the movie gets bloody in a big way. The introduction of blazing red into the carefully controlled black/white color scheme makes it all the more shocking and palpable when it happens. And of course it also helps that we’ve got all the political intrigue, guerilla tactics, and sudden betrayals to keep everything unpredictable and exciting.

Far more importantly, the action sequences are beautifully creative and utterly bonkers in a way that only Chinese action cinema could deliver. The gimmick du jour is a kind of weaponized umbrella that basically serves as a shield on the end of a stick, and it can also shoot shurikens. I promise, it’s way more elegant, inventive, and stupidly impractically awesome than I’m making it sound here.

Then we have the actors. On the one hand, everyone turns in a solid performance and the actors deserve no shortage of credit for helping us keep everything clear. In particular, Deng Chao is astounding in his double roles, aided by seamless effects work. On the other hand, a fair amount of this simplicity comes from the hammy kind of cartoonish acting so often found in Asian films. Zheng Kai is probably the most obvious case in point, though Wang Jingchun as the major domo and Deng Chao as the real Ziyu are both played quite broad as well.

All told, I have no problem giving Shadow (2018) a full recommendation. The action is bloody fun, the characters are engaging, and the plot is multifaceted without ever becoming incomprehensible. I just wish all the various themes about war, revenge, and balance had congealed into something more inventive or thought-provoking. Though at least these motifs were translated into breathtaking visuals, and that’s worth a lot.

If this one ever comes your way, definitely give it a look.

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