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Zhang Yimou doesn’t only strip away most of the colours in historical drama Shadow but the excitement, tension and character development as well, in what is one of his most tepid films.

I have yet to see a Zhang Yimou film that doesn't at least contain half a dozen visuals you want to frame and hang on your wall. In that regard, Shadow is no exception, with several rain-soaked images of fighters in a yin & yang arena that are strikingly beautiful.

Contrary to Zhang's other films these images are far and few between however. The decision to shoot Shadow mostly in muted grey gradients doesn't do the picture a lot of favours: scenes soon start to resemble each other to such an extent that they are nearly indistuighable.

The movie isn't helped either by a pedestrian, stagey plot about the double of a military commander, who goes rogue and declares war on a neighbouring kingdom, much to the king's displeasure. The intrigue is ripe for interesting drama, but Zhang doesn't exploit it. Not only does the run-up to meaty part of the story take ages, the denouement following a climactic battle (though at times rather silly, still the highlight of the film) saps all enjoyment out of the picture's final quarter.

And then there is the problem of the acting. Lead actor Chao Deng never gets to grips with the complexities and nuances of his dual role, while Zheng Kai goes full pantomime villain as the annoyed king. The supporting cast puts on a better diplay but they are mostly reduced to inconsequential background noise.

All of this makes Shadow a fitting companion piece to Wong Karwei's misfire The Grandmaster. The movie takes an interesting subject, appears to take bold visual swings but ultimately somehow squeezes every breath of life out of the film.

release: 2018

director: Zhang Yimou

starring: Chao Deng, Zheng Kai, Li Sun, Wang Qianyuan


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