Shadow: unconventional and distinct
In many ways, Zhang Yimou’s 2018 epic retelling of the tale of the Three Kingdoms is an ode to Chinese traditions.
Immediately, as the movie opens, we realise we’re facing a rather unconventional landscape. Zhang, known for his use of intense and radiant hues of colour, depicts for us a world almost completely drained of any. The monochromatic sheen is akin to that of the old ink-wash paintings, bringing with it cultural connotations further emphasised through strenuous costume and production design – from the dominant placement of calligraphy to the rain-drenched mountains, and the fengshui of the Yin-Yang arena. The ink-brush paintings, with their cold air of tranquillity, drenched in tension and movement, quite overtly foreshadow the dynamics at play and the manipulation and deceit that are still to come.
The palette of black and white is a very distinct stylistic choice, not just favoured for its aesthetic elements. Shadows in this movie refer to the body doubles employed by nobles to act as decoys against assassins. The ubiquitous use of Yin-Yang symbolism, signifying how seemingly opposite forces can be interconnected, hints at the duality of actual shadows, imitating the sharp contrast between light and darkness and simultaneously their undeniable coexistence and interdependence. Opposite extremes can be found scattered throughout the movie, and Deng Chao in his role as both the Commander and his ‘shadow‘ offers the audience a performance of polar opposites full of contradictions and ambiguities as two parts of one whole.
The sense of duplicity finds itself at large in the many power plays, both big and small, as the narrative forms a complex web of deceitful schemes laid out by two-faced players, that comes to a climax in what many viewers can only describe as a very Tarantinoesque display of violence as suddenly the monochromatic world is drenched in a bright crimson red – a red that confronts us precisely because of its scarce usage. In the final act, as the action builds up and the pace quickens (in contrast to a sometimes rather sluggish first act), Zhang shows his ability to keep track of his characters and keep a good overview at all times as the accumulation of the situation unfolds across a wide arena. Both the battle and its epilogue back at court are able to satisfy and surprise the viewer in the movie’s conclusion.
Though it isn’t hard for those familiar with Asian mainstream cinema and television to spot the undertones of the typically loved soap opera style drama, or the very familiar tropes of martial arts movies: people flying from roof to roof, and defying gravity can seem as normal as walking, it is undeniable that Shadow is chasing a certain deeper meaning inherent to elements of the ancient culture of China. In what critics are calling Zhang’s return to ‘form and soul’ after certain questionable choices and judgements (2016’s The Great Wall, we’re looking at you), Shadow has in many ways tried to prove to us that Zhang still has a bit of House of Flying Daggers left to give.