Take an arrogant king, a double, and an independent and fierce princess, so begins the latest epic from Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) a tale of ego and one-upmanship that is as bloody as it is beautiful. The film turns the concept of revenge into a gory calligraphy that almost becomes fetishistic.
“Shadow” is based on the Three Kingdom era of Chinese history.
King Peiliang (Zheng Kai) is a shallow king who lives selfishly. He is offended when a commander of his (Deng Chao) visits a rival tribe for a birthday party.
Fearing a war, the king offers his daughter for marriage to rival Yang Kang, (Hu Jun) while he proposes instead to have her as a concubine.
A war is at hand.
There is a subplot involving the commander whose doppelganger is kept in a cave, held in limbo, “neither ghost nor man” which is arguably the most arresting aspect of the film, although there are many aspects to ponder from philosophy, ethics, architecture, Taoism and calligraphy.
While the plot is as confusing as a Chinese Finger Trap game, given all of the intricacy of twins, kings and fealty, the design of the film is as delicate as a landscape in Chinese ink. Indigo-black mountains hover over layered skies, rippled in gray like heron’s wings.
As eloquent as the film is in its beauty, it is also quite violent. Men are disemboweled. Huge swords are lodged into chest cavities turning the human body into clockwork, medieval and nihilistic. Blood bubbles on porcelain faces which tremble and vibrate of their own violation, a hybrid blend of pox and waterlilies.
Brace yourself for a weird musical routine that becomes a punk version of the lute, both laughable and intense, along with death scenes that take full minutes to close with all of the melodrama usually reserved for opera.
“Shadow“ is a counterpoint to the blunt crunching and artery-bursting of “John Wick.” In Yimou’s realm, murder is an impulsive spirit of movement, akin to calligraphy.
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