Director Zhang Yimou (Heroes – 2002, The Flying Daggers – 2004) released his next film and the fans of ‘arts cinema’ are over-excitedly flocking together to extol on the unparalleled beauty of its shootings, while zelous representatives of the Chinese culture grumble about the historical inconsistency of the film’s setting and script. However, some of us just want to find the opportunity to escape a while from our routine and forget ourselves into a cinematic world that might inspire us to continue on, refreshed for the better hopefully.
On the basis of historical evidence from the 3rd century AD when China was divided into three competing kingdoms, Yimou is inspired freely as an artist to weave a dark tale of passion, greed, and deceit as conducted by the Shakespearean narrative.
Yu, general of the Pei kingdom, is seriously injured in the war to recover the neighboring province from the Yang faction and isolates himself, forcing Liang, his king to focus on a more diplomatic approach in order to hold onto power, straining the relationship between the two powerful men resulting in political tremors and an arm wrestle for power. Yu, having become a shadow of his former self, decides to use a man in his service as a double that shall be his “front” while in the background, he moves the strings in multiple levels, both inside and outside the kingdom. His wife undertakes to help his double to ease into his role without Liang’s suspecting of Yu’s intrigue. But what happens when the double, Yu’s alleged “Shadow” is doing so well that he begins to acquire more real substance to the ones around him, than the real one?
Whoever anticipated for the epic armies clash and the duels of “Hero” is going to be disappointed, as well as anyone waiting for the lively almost surreal canvas of ‘House of the Flying Daggers’. All colors have blurred in the background in order to highlight the austere contrast of black and white and all the shades of gray. And it’s not just because of ying and yang philosophy by which Yimou tries to add an extra tone of mysticism.
All scenes are instilled by moving shadows that are given both visually and by sounds of nature and especially of rain. The liquid element in many forms (water, blood, calligraphy ink) underlines the internal fluidity and struggle of the heroes on the inside against themselves, their principles and others. Loudboy’s music is discreet with sudden outbursts, and the wardrobe deserves an Oscar for its plasticity and the clothes’ harmonious entwining of body movements.
The script is borrowed from classic sources, stories and characters that are archetypal. The issue of a double as is dealt in stories such as ‘The Man with the Iron Mask’ and ‘Arabian Nights’, homeric scenes of the Iliad, such as the duel of the two generals and the trick of the ‘Trojan Horse’ and of course the constant moral dilemmas such as those appearing in Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. All of this contributes to a theatrical atmosphere so that the characters are on full display.
As a result the scenario is to be expected mainly, though powerful in its portraying the tide of events, sometimes a hair’s breadth from approaching the limits of the psychological thriller. Beginning smoothly and by offering time and space to unfold the relationships between characters, the tension is peaked gradually into a continuous bloodbath, almost a commonality nowadays, of course, in a post-Game-of-Thrones era.
But the execution redeems most of its misgivings. Yimou makes clear that he is not trying to rediscover the ‘wheel’. He is based on solid foundations, built by the better directors (like Akira Kurosawa of ‘Kagemusha’ in particular), and he gives his own modern version of the corruption of power and the driving force behind the whole range of human passions, which lead with mathematical precision according to ancient Greek model, to tragedy.
This is the reason why acting is critical to the film. Yimou seems to trust his actors and let them express themselves freely. This is shown by deeply human rendering attributed to otherwise archetypal characters, even the ones of secondary roles. Chao Deng, especially in the double role of General Yu and his Shadow, is really the top example, leading me to believe for a while that he was a different actor in each role! And, last but not least Xiao Ai as his wife, whose enigmatic gaze but also her silences are stunning.
Yimou is a classic director of the ‘love or hate’ syndrom, but I really cannot bring myself into this process. He is not a world wide phenomenon, as his choices in the productions to be involved (The Great Wall – 2016) can sometimes be mind boggling, but on the other hand I cannot deny his spontaneity of visual talent. If only for its landscapes lost in the mists like ghosts, it’s worth watching Yimu’s Shadow and let us travel beyond the mundane and the trivial.