Once a week we choose an Asian film available on Australian streaming services to quash your lockdown boredom!
Since his sumptuous film Raise The Red Lantern was released nearly thirty years ago, Zhang Yimou holds the title – at least in the Western sphere – of China’s most prolific cinematic voice. In a time when foreign cinema was an even more dubious commercial proposition than it is today, Raise The Red Lantern was greeted with more acclaim outside of China than within it – the film was in fact banned in its home country temporarily for its subversive content.
Over a decade later, Yimou directed Hero, perhaps the definitive Wuxia film. Armed with the cachet of a “Quentin Tarantino presents” credit, it became the third highest grossing foreign film of all time in the United States. Therefore, it is curious Yimou hasn’t been tempted to jump ship to Hollywood in the manner of Ang Lee or John Woo, aside from directing the frivolous $150 million Chinese-American co-production The Great Wall (featuring Matt-Damon with a ponytail!) Though released with little fanfare in Australia, Shadow proves Yimou is as majestic a visual stylist and deft an epic storyteller as he ever has been.
The films’ title has a dual significance. First, it reflects the visual aesthetic of the film, which bathes surroundings in a stunning greyscale colour scheme. The purpose behind this style was apparently to replicate Chinese ink wash paintings, though more conceptually, the divide between black and white services the films’ preoccupation with dualistic imagery (pictured is an overt example). Secondly, the “shadow” is also a person; the protagonist Jingzhou, bearing the exact resemblance of the injured Commander Ziyu, is tasked to adopt Ziyu’s identity while he regains his strength.
I cannot stress enough how stupefyingly gorgeous this film is visually – whether in interior scenes of dialogue, or large-scale action set pieces, the spell conjured by Shadow’s meticulous art direction and cinematography is genuinely unique and completely engrossing. This aesthetic is particularly admirable because it is completely incongruous with archetypal visions of Wuxia films, of lush, sunlit landscapes and vibrant colours abound. Much like filming a Western in winter (The Hateful Eight or Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider spring to mind), to rob a Wuxia film of its vivacity and colour is a bold move, particularly for Yimou, whose previous films perfected a more traditional Wuxia aesthetic.
Narratively, Shadow is serviceably compelling, featuring an array of melodramatic twists and turns, but let’s be honest: who sees a film like this for the story? A personal highlight: the sight of a troupe of soldiers sliding down a muddy bank encased in weaponised umbrellas.