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Non-Review Review: Ying (“Shadow”)

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Shadow is a mess.

Shadow aims for opera, but winds up in soap opera. The film’s plotting is a mess of internal contradictions grasping desperately at pseudo-profundity. The film’s structure is completely chaotic, with what should be the climax of the third act coming about a half-an-hour before the end credits in order to make room for even more plot twists and betrayals and reversals. Shadow simply does not work on a number of fundamental levels.

And yet, in spite of that, there’s an incredible charm to the film. Director Zhang Yimou commits wholeheartedly and unquestioningly to his premise, right down to the heavily desaturated-to-the-point-of-almost-being-black-and-white colour scheme. Shadow never seems to have any hesitation or self-doubt as it commits to an increasingly convoluted plot and a series of increasingly absurd visual flourishes. It is as exhilarating as it is infuriating.

Shadow is a movie in which an invading army cocks their razor umbrellas before riding said umbrellas through the streets of a city under assault. It’s completely off the wall, but also impossible to completely resist.

The plot of Shadow is a very heightened sort of royal drama. Two kingdoms have struck a fragile alliance over an occupied city, having unified to repel a third rival power. These two armies exist in a state of fragile peace; one of the two kingdoms occupies the city while the other lurks in the shadow nursing its resentment. As Shadow unfolds, these two uneasy allies move closer and closer to war. A scheduled duel between the champion of one house and the ruler of another might bring it all crashing down around everybody’s ears.

As the title suggests, Shadow is a movie obsessed with mirroring and doubling, with duality and contrast. Indeed, it is not a surprise that the third army suggested in the opening exposition dump is never mentioned again; Shadow is a tale of halves at war with one another. The film is structured to emphasise this: the king Pei Liang and his sister Qing Ping, who in the opening scene share an unlikely double date with the general Jing Zhou and his wife Xiao Ai, who are juxtaposed against the father and son rulers of the rival clan Yang Ping and Yang Cang.

Shadow is not a subtle movie. The film is never worried that the audience might miss this theme of duality, because it is so densely woven into the fabric of the movie. The sets are designed to be symmetrical. The characters frequently dress in black and white in order to contrast with their scene partners. A considerable amount of time is spent in a training dungeon with a gigantic taijitu symbol that serves as a training ground. The training conducted in this circle is codified as masculine and feminine, two other perspectives aligned in opposition.

All of this exists in service of the plot, in which a wise old general is employing a doppelganger in order to manipulate the players of this grand game. As an anonymous street urchin tries to navigate court intrigue, he finds himself playing the role of a powerful political figure. Shadow repeatedly asks at what point this illusion becomes reality, at what point the shadow becomes the object. How long can one man live another’s life, sleep in the same room as wife, act in accordance with his will, without becoming that man?

Shadow is horrifically and brutally over-signified. There are dozens of seemingly interminable scenes in which characters meditate at length upon the themes of the work, on this idea of the blurred boundary between the self and the other, on the difficulty in distinguishing the real from the illusory. Zhang Yimou is not content to express these themes in visual terms, or even to allude to them in dialogue. Instead, characters are constantly articulating them – over and over and over again.

The plotting does not help matters. Shadow unfolds in a magical realist world where it is best not to focus on the particular plotting choices; it seems like Pei Liang suspects that Jing Zhou has been replaced by a double, and he seems fairly casual about the whole thing as if to imply that this is just the sort of thing that happens around here. However, Shadow is full of revelations and reversals that seem designed to complicate a fairly linear narrative.

New elements and new revelations are incorporated with little set-up, often existing simple to extend the plot. At one point, an exiled general just happens to stumble upon an army of former convicts in the middle of the jungle. It is never explained how or why those convicts are involved in this titanic struggle, nor why they can be trusted, nor what their motivations might be. They are just there because the film requires this exiled general to have an army that he can lead.

Similarly, the film reaches its climax about a half an hour before it ends, which is a massive pacing problem. The film develops a second climax that feels both completely superfluous and over-extended, beginning with the murder of a character that the audience had never met before. By the time that various characters are arguing that they have been framed or set up by other characters, there’s no reason to care. It does not matter. None of this matters. It is all so horribly convoluted that there’s no emotional engagement. Sometimes more plot is not good plotting.

All that said, Shadow looks beautiful. Zhang Yimou incorporates any number of striking visuals, and has a beautiful eye. As absurd as the sequence of a wandering general just finding an army lounging around in the jungle might be, it is visually stunning. Slow-motion shots of blades throwing up water from puddles on the ground are striking, no matter how often they are employed. The production design is incredible, filled with imagery plucked from an over-active imagination.

There are points at which it is impossible to resist Shadow. This is a movie in which an invading army vanquishes their opponents using what can only be described as razor-blade umbrellas that are later used to catapult them through the streets. At another point, an army leads an aquatic invasion task force through the sewers using steam-punk oxygen tanks. There are moments when Shadow screams to its audience “just go with it”, and it occasionally seems strong enough that it might actually win the viewer over.

Shadow works better as a series of fevered imaginings and images than as a coherent narrative: a husband and wife work through marital strife in an intense musical duet that is juxtaposed with a brutal battle occurring simultaneously; a throat cut when a blade is flicked ever-so-gently; the sound of cut veins that spray like firehoses; the arrival of a giant custom-made battle-platform built of bamboo and branded with the movie’s central motif.

Shadow is muddled, convoluted, overplotted, unfocused and heavy-handed. However, it’s also very pretty to look at and has just enough of the spark of insane genius that it never completely comes apart.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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