This year’s Official Competition at London Film Festival has 10 unique project from all over the globe, and Shadow highlights the welcome diverse nature of films on offer this year. Set during China’s Three Kingdom’s era (AD 220-280), The King of Pei’s (Ryan Zheng) trusted Commander (Chao Deng) brings danger to the kingdom by challenging a rival ruler to a duel. However, under constant threat of assassination many nobles secretly employed surrogate men, known as shadows. Commander is one of these shadows, unbeknown to all but a select few.
When Shadow kicks off, it does feel as if you’ve been dumped into episode 6 of a TV show. The onslaught of names and information is overwhelming but once it all slows down, it becomes easier to follow and the plot is very well layered. It’s about one finding their identity whilst living their life as a glorified slave, discovering who they are despite quite literally living as someone else. The themes displayed are tackled head on to begin with and slowly morph into something much more complex. It a shame though as this concept is explored too much towards the end as the film does overstay its welcome, almost feeling too scared to end.
At times Shadow is shot in tones of black and white which highlights the style of Chinese ink wash paintings used in The King of Pei’s Fortress. When used, it looks absolutely spectacular. It’s as if we’re watching a painting come to life. The background colours allow the characters, who are all kitted out in spectacular costumes, really jump off the screen.
As you’d expect, the fight sequences are an absolute joy to behold. Slow motion can become tedious but it’s utilised here with such aplomb. The outside world is a monsoon of rain and this allows every rain drop to be turned into something mesmerising. There’s a repetitive shot of feet splashing in the rain which is so striking it leaves you in awe every time. A staff hitting an umbrella (yes that’s a weapon and yes it makes sense) means every droplet bounces off and something that’s usually invisible to the naked eye is there in plain sight looking remarkable. Top marks should also go to a certain moment in the final battle that is so bonkers but looks visually beautiful it becomes one of the highlights of the entire film.
Each character is allowed time to sell their emotions in long, silent scenes with nothing but a score to accompany it. Every actor handles these scenes superbly. There’s no subtly in them which pays off in this context. We can see their utter despair and grief and there’s no other way to read it. Sometimes subtly should be thrown out the window. However, as the scenes go on, the score becomes distracting and, quite frankly, frustrating. Whilst the lute is a beautiful instrument, the constant plucking really takes away from the emotional depth within the scenes.
Despite a shaky start and an epilogue that doesn’t know when to quit, Shadow is still a well crafted martial arts drama that is much more than just swords and fighting. It has a number of flaws, but for the most part this doesn’t deteriorate the final product too much.