Ahhhhh. I was tempering the children’s expectations regarding this Zhang Yimou movie because it ranks well below House of Flying Daggers (on the ratings sites) which in turn ranks well below Hero, but I needn’t have worried. We loved this tale of a changeling general (the titular “shadow”) who is being set up to overthrow his Lord (because the real general was stabbed by a master and seems to be dying) through some series of plot devices that involve defeating the same master who stabbed the real general.
I’m being vague here because it’s been a few weeks and the plot was very intricate but we were pleasantly surprised: We all followed the plot and could tell the characters apart. Impressive, given that two of the leads are played by Chao Deng. But the characters are so different, I kept wondering if it was the same person.
Anyway, there’s a lot going on. The Shadow is increasingly unsure of being a pawn in this game (which pretty much has to end up with him dying, even though the general teases him with the possibility of getting back to his mother after it’s all over). The general’s plan seems to be flawless if the Shadow can defeat the master but that’s a big if. Meanwhile, the general’s wife, while maintaining a respectful distance, does seem to be getting more attracted to the Shadow—who after all is identical to her husband, except maybe less of a jerk. Meanwhile, the wife ends up coming up with the strategy that can defeat the master, and it involves…weaponized umbrellas!
It’s great. The indoor shots and a few of the battle scenes are filmed in black-and-white (probably color corrected after the fact), though the (obligatory) bamboo forest scene is a verdant green. It’s just a beautiful film, is what I’m saying, and it’s not just anyone who could make a battle scene involving an army of women with parasols work. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else who could do it.
So, the set design is wonderful, the camerawork wonderful, the wire work amazing—though not over the top, which I appreciated, because the sort of super-heroic character implicit in the flying hero would’ve undermined the need for a solid battle strategy. The choreography is fun and the plot is engaging. The acting is good, kind of Shakespearean, with its weak kings and power mad generals. The stars are good looking and otherwise appealing. What more could you want? Music? The music is also really good, with drums and zithers dominating. (The stage name of the composer is, amusingly,”Loudboy”, although there’s some controversy over whether or not he plagiarized the work.)
Almost two hours long, but it’s thick. The ending…is probably not a people-pleaser. The three men are locked in a struggle, while the general’s wife has to figure out what her role in this is going to be. I liked getting to the end, and so was less invested in the details of the story’s resolution. I did see a couple of the twists coming (as did The Flower), but not all of them.
A lot of fun. Pure historical soap with kung-fu action. Don’t know why it didn’t do better.