BFI London Film Festival: Shadow (Ying)

Shadow (Ying)
Shadow (Ying)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Wang Jingchun, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong and Leo Wu
Screening at LFF October 19th and 20th 2018

by Joanna Orland

Based on historical Chinese lore, Shadow tells the tale of neighbouring kingdoms Pei and Jing, who have a history of friction, remaining at odds with each other to no end. When Pei’s Commander goes against his King’s wishes to battle Jing’s ruler, the plot begins to unfold. But the Commander is not who he seems to be – close to death, the true Commander is in hiding, employing a ‘shadow’ doppelgänger to start a new war to claim Jing.

The plot is superfluous to what makes Shadow impressive. Like his previous works House of Flying Daggers and Hero, director Zhang Yimou uses colour, movement and sound to create a beautiful spectacle; a visual and aural feast for the senses. Watching Shadow’s choreographed scenes is like watching a ballet, or a Hollywood musical from the golden age. There is so much beauty that the story doesn’t even matter.

Alas, Shadow focuses too much on the story; dialogue is the predominant feature of the film, as the symbolism and battle scenes are used sparingly, but to great effect. Visual inspiration comes from water, calligraphy and the yin yang symbol. A monochrome colour palette dominates the screen, with splashes of blood drawn in battle adding colour. The beautiful battle scenes are choreographed to perfection as movement is treated as delicately as dance, using hyperreal sound design to emphasize every gory hit and each devastating miss. Music is used sparingly, primarily as diegetic, while sound effects are used to heighten movement. The most ground-breaking aspect of the film is Yimou’s use of the bespoke umbrella prop created for the battle between Pei and Jing. Paying homage to Singin’ in the Rain, the umbrella scenes are gloriously innovative and artistic, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more impressive martial arts display in cinema.

Shadow’s bold artistry lies in its technical aspects – choreography, cinematography and sound design. Too much story detracts from the action, and we are, for the most part, left waiting for the spectacle to come – the glorious battle finale between Pei and Jing. A master of cinematic martial arts, Yimou does create a visual and aural masterpiece with Shadow; if only there were less dialogue and more movement, this film would have been perfection.


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