Ever since the beginning of the new millennium, Chinese action cinema have in someway, reinvented themselves, with Ang Lee’s prolific Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The massive reception, and tidal wave of western critical acclaim since Lee’s magnum opus, finally put the Chinese action staple on the global map, demonstrating that not only does the industry have talent in terms of choreography, but also in terms of performance art. Ever since the early 2000’s, filmmakers from across the nation have been consistently attempting to one-up each other’s work, utilizing a similar narrative structure to improve and succeed on their frequently abused dreary predictable formulas. Back then (and even now in some regards), plot and character development was never really the forefront appeal of the mass expansion of Chinese period-piece action flicks.
In the spirit of the majority of Zhang Yimou’s action filmography (one of the very pioneers of this large scale movement, with film’s ranging from Hero to The House of Flying Daggers), Shadow, his latest film, perfectly fits into the same ranking as his other works. Unfortunately, this isn’t it a good thing. Like the rest of Yimou’s expansive period-piece action flicks, Shadow suffers from the same consequences and sacrifices, Zhang commits with each outing. While visually astonishing, there’s nothing to latch onto in terms of character nor even plot. It’s a cautionary tale of dominance and betrayal, that fails to connect the audience with any of the internal motivations and struggles of the protagonists. At the end, we simply forget what kind of person they were, or even at times what their reasoning for fighting for a greater cause was, which ultimately diminishes the stakes and main attractive appeal to why people see Yimou’s filmography in the first place.
It goes without saying, that albeit the film’s lack of anything relatable or even sustainable narrative/character development, the action almost makes up for the lack of a sufficient experience, with plenty of beautiful shots and choreography that will simply blow you away. From the framing, to the sporadic editing, each punch, stab, and choke, will mercilessly turn over your boredom from the slag of expositional plot details, too killer umbrellas and bloodshed. It’s bombastic, and anarchic in the best way possible, where everything feels like a dance, a cinematic ritual to death and murder, shot with articulate precision.
Through it’s eye-rolling conflicts with it’s narrative and general artistic approach, Shadow still manages to make due with its action-set pieces, where Yimou’s long-lived directing experience, comes into full-force, to deliver an exciting balls-off-the-walls final 30 minutes. Alongside it’s gorgeous monochromatic-color palette, and brutal sound design, Yimou thankfully still has his signature midas touch, where he will continue to break the limits of action, regardless of how un-developed or hollow his films plot and characters may be.
Shadow is Now Playing In Select Canadian Cinemas