A Zhang Yimou film.
One of my buddies dropped a trailer for this on me a while back. It seemed up my alley - I usually enjoy some oriental old-timey flicks with martial arts and revenge. What set the trailer apart for me though was a scene where people were spinning down the street under the protective offense of razor-umbrellas like it was just another day. Well, amidst a great battle between new releases still too new to be shipped from Netflix when you want them, this movie sneaks in to try and tell me why I need to get our of the rain. Turn down your colors and work on your paint-letters, tonight we look at Shadow.
Originally named Ying I guess, which makes for a far less confusing name when you have things such as The Shadow - who isn’t to be confused with this shadow, while still being totally appropriate to what the movie has going on for it in themes, someone somewhere decided it wasn’t cool enough and renamed it to Shadow. There’s a lot to unpack in this movie when it comes to items and philosophies a person might pull out of it - whether intended or not I wouldn’t know, since I didn’t make it. What I’m pretty sure is quite meant to be in it is the constant reference to the concept of Yin and Yang, commonly mucked up and referred to as Ying and Yang by people who don’t know any better - including me until I one day saw how it was supposed to be while watching none other than a Chinese martial arts movie. This encompasses a whole lot of good and bad, dark and light, manly and feminine talk that can be seen throughout the film as either undertones or flat out a conversation piece and at times even a impactful mechanic towards the action of the movie. There’s also a bunch of morality questioning, revenge, and political plot going on here, each with their own aspects that you could grab at and expand out into whatever length paper you felt like writing. Here on this page, however, we should have gotten to know me as the kind of person who can appreciate this sort of thing, but leave’s it’s discussion to people better suited to dissect media in a philosopher way.
Some actually might be surprised that the lack of action in most of this movie didn’t really bother me that much, considering what sold me on it was initially the promise of combat-grade umbrellas. Some who also saw that trailer, might be slightly surprised to hear me state that there really isn’t that much action. Thing is, this isn’t non-typical of period setting Chinese movies I’ve watched. Most of them had some heavy ties towards romance or character interactions, and tended to punctuate it all with scenes of action. Subliminally, I just had that expectation going in - although I will be honest in that I really did expect perhaps a bit more than just the final act to have something more than a few scenes of training. For folks who aren’t into that drama element of characters playing on each other in a game of subterfuge and political power plays, they might find themselves zoning out a bit as the movie goes on. It never really feels as though it’s dragging its feet however, so let’s make that understood. There is always something happening, or being unveiled, so it’s not that the movie ever gets boring - at least to me anyways.
To make the elements of the drama work though, it needs characters and actors that can do them justice. It’s foreign, so I can’t speak for the use of language or inflections on a nit-picky level. I can say that the actors do a great job with general body language and being expressive with their faces. At times, things might seem slightly over-acted, but again I can’t really speak to how much so it is given potential cultural differences. The characters themselves all have their own goals and aspirations, so nobody quite feels as though they are wandering aimlessly about for the sake of the movie. You might find yourself not liking certain characters because of their actions and feeling for other characters, and yet even then there are times for a lot of the characters where you might flip those feelings around, either gaining or loosing some amount of likeability due to their actions as they unfold out. While most of the main characters all stand out from each other, it does make the shadow’s constantly pointed out “looking almost identical” to he whom he shadows seem a bit odd, since they don’t really look that alike to me. On the flip of that, the mini-army of umbrella warriors that shows up in the final act look incredibly similar to me, in part do to wearing incredibly similar if not the same outfits with very similar builds and hairstyles.
The promise of action is what drew me into this movie, and honestly what is in it is pretty good. The entire movie is stuck in a perpetual rain, which lends an amount of extra visual flair to the fights or matches that show up. Innovation gets brought in with the weapons being toted about - gauntlet crossbows and combat umbrellas being the stand out elements of out there, with large “sabers” (looks more like a Guandao to me translation) and a sword here and there bringing up the bulk of the arsenal. It’s all nice looking for the weapon buffs out there, and I also appreciate the battle umbrella taking damage as the fight goes on. As far as martial arts cinema, this is much more grounded than the classic wire-fu that some people are probably more familiar with. Although there is some twirls in here, it’s usually short furious bouts, fought to a decisive point. It’s a very pleasant thing to watch the choreography unfold, especially with all the rain adding to the motion of things.
The rain also ties nicely into something else that can be talked about, and that’s the more cinematic elements. The movie has a tendency of doing rather artsy things across it’s runtime. Colors often feel incredibly muted, and when combined with the rain it adds a level of depression about this movie of revenge and subterfuge, which is rather appropriate. It also ties in nicely with the overall yin and yang that flows through the the films blood, with the whole light and dark, black and white aspect of it - something that’s entirely intentional in a noticeable way towards the end when two of the characters sit down to play some zithers and you catch with your eyes the use of the blacks and whites in the shot. The shots themselves are also pretty good, finding times to do fun things like have characters behind screens, set up scenes with motion despite being rather still, and remaining recognizable as places as it goes. From hidden caves to a massively innovative final battle boat-arena, the muted colors don’t tend to make things as boring as you would expect such a thing to happen. Sometimes, this can be used to make violence stand out a bit more, but largely it feels more like an artistic wash on scenes then a hand-curated attempt to deliver messages with every shot.
The violence is generally pretty tame, despite people getting shot with arrows or cut up. There’s plenty of blood during action scenes, but when someone is cut it’s just a cut - not so much things falling off and out or explosive sprays of tube-fed air-injected water hoses. It helps keep with that more grounded feel, although I do also have to admit that at times it’s a bit noticeable as an effect element added in later on. It’s not movie breaking bad, but I noticed it anyways. Audio is also in a boat like this - at a certain point, one of the things you notice is actually the lack of music that often happens about. If the scene doesn’t contain someone playing music, than largely there is not music in it. In turn, you get that period instrumental to float about and add to the scenes, both as immersion and as appropriate mood setters. On the flip side of that, you might not be walking out humming tunes.
While not on the top of my favorite martial arts movies, Chinese movies, or most lists in general, Shadow isn’t bad. If you want more drama then straight fighter, this could be a good option, as long as you don’t mind subtitles. It has some cool elements to it that stand out a bit, but the story itself didn’t strike me as incredibly impressive - but I’ve probably witnessed that storyline more already than a lot of other folks may have so to them it might be a bunch more fresh. It’s got some artistic grounds to it, as well as bunch of potential for people to dive into philosophies and discussions like that - even if lacking in morals and ephemeral topics, certainly in film making techniques. It looks good, that actors do good, and the action choreography is good when it shows up. Worth a rental for people for sure, as long as your in the mood to read while watching.