Shadow (影, Zhang Yimou, 2018)

Shadow poster 1Zhang Yimou waxes Shakespearean in a tale of palace intrigue and a world out of balance in his latest return to the age of wuxia, Shadow (影, Yǐng). Drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings, Zhang’s monochromatic world has a chilling beauty even in its intense layers of oppression which make prisoners of king and subjects alike. Like the yin yang diagram on which the climatic battle takes place, Shadow is a tale of dualities and oppositions as its hollowed out hero begins to wonder who exactly he might be without the mirror.

Long ago in feudal China, the Kingdom of Pei has been living in peace thanks to an “alliance” with the Yang who are technically occupying the former Pei city of Jing. Many in the Kingdom of Pei are unhappy with this arrangement, regarding the loss of Jing as a humiliation and the king’s refusal to retake it more cowardice than pragmatism. Despite the king’s instruction that the truce must be maintained and war avoided at all costs, his trusted commander has undertaken a secret meeting with Yang in which he has agreed to a personal duel for the honour of Pei. The king is very unhappy. A lesser man might have lost his head, but the king needs his commander. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the commander is not all he seems. Nobleman Yu (Deng Chao) was badly injured during a previous fight with Yang and has retreated to the catacombs while his double, Jing (also Deng Chao), has been playing his part in court.

Jing, “saved” from poverty as a young child brought to the palace as a double for Yu, is grateful and loyal. He respects his masters and has trained hard to learn the skills needed to pass as a nobleman and more particularly as Yu. As such he has no “identity”. Even his name was given to him by his master and is simply that of the town where he was found which happens to be the disputed city itself. Jing does everything right – his instincts are good, he is clever and quick-witted with a talent for intrigue, all of which makes him both a danger and a shield for Yu. Yu, meanwhile, trapped in the same underground cell which used to house Jing, has become warped and embittered. Nursing a mortal wound, he plots and schemes against the king, scuttling goblin-like as he rails against his fate.

Yu promises Jing a release from his mental imprisonment if he agrees to take part in the duel with Yang. Jing knows that Yu’s promise is hollow and that he is not intended to survive, but submits himself to his fate anyway. He does this, partly, in hope but also because of his longstanding but unspeakable love for Madam (Sun Li) – Yu’s wife, who is one of the few people ever to express pity for his miserable circumstances. As the film opens, Madam and the king’s sister are reading proverbs together including one which insists that men are meant to rule. The king, however, is weak – he is effete and prefers the art of the brush to that of the sword, while his sister is “wild” – a bold and impetuous young woman seemingly more suited to the throne than her foppish brother.

As if to complete the theme, it’s Madam who eventually reveals the technique to beat Yang to her increasingly crazed husband. In order to defeat his hyper masculine enemy who fights with a giant sabre, Yu resolves to fight like a girl armed with one of Pei’s iconic parasols reconfigured in sharpened iron. Only by creating balance can they hope to win, meeting the weight of Yang’s blunt force with a lightness of touch and feminine elegance. 

The world of Shadow is one defined by its dualities – male/female, lowborn and high, betrayal and loyalty, arrogance and supplication. Jing’s existence is defined by that of the “true” commander – a shadow cannot exist without a form to cast it, or so it had always been thought. Offered the possibility of escape, Jing’s original identity begins to resurface. Yet his victory over his “other self” is also a defeat which infects him with the dubious moralities of the court, allowing him to become more than himself alone and leaving the world once again dangerously unbalanced. As the opening narration told us, however, it is not Jing, or Yu, or the king who hold the fate of Pei in their hands but Madam whose final decision will dictate the course of history. Set in a world of oppressive greys broken only by the driving rain and shocking redness of blood, Shadow may not return Zhang to the balletic heights of the poetic Hero, but does its best to add Shakespearean grandeur to its tragic tale of fractured identities and conflicting desires.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Village of No Return (健忘村, Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

健忘村_畫報風篇_RED_OK_VWouldn’t it be wonderful to just forget all the terrible/embarrassing things that have ever happened to you and live in a paradise of blissful ignorance? To put it bluntly, this is an experiment with historical precedent and one which has never yet worked out for the best. Absurd Taiwanese comedy Village of No Return (健忘村, Jiànwàng Cūn) is both a raucous life in the village comedy and subtle satire on the roots of tyranny, cults of personality, fake news and the evils of the art of forgetting that ultimately turns into a defence of the benevolent dictator.

Somewhere around 1914, the early years of the Chinese Republic, an ambitious warlord (Eric Tsang) has his sights set on capturing Desire Village which, he has been assured by a fortune teller, contains numerous treasures and will make him a king. Unfortunately, his village mole is the unscrupulous Big Pie (Ban Zan) who treks home with carrier pigeons he’s supposed to send back with the message “wait”, “come”, or “don’t come” only Big Pie can’t read. None of that really matters in the end because Big Pie is shortly to die in mysterious circumstances just as a mysterious monk, Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), rocks up with a strange “Worry Ridder” device he claims can permanently ease anxieties.

The main drama revolves around melancholy village girl, Autumn (Shu Qi), who was married off to the ugly and abusive Big Pie against her will. Still pining for the son of the village leader, Dean (Tony Yang), who went off to become an official but has become displaced during the Revolution, Autumn has spent her life literally shackled to the stove and has begun to dwell on death as an antidote to the hopelessness of realising Dean is probably not coming back. Autumn is, however, the last to hold out against the lure of the Worry Ridder, reluctant to give up the memory of Dean no matter how painful it may continue to be.

Fortune Tien is nothing if not persuasive. Little by little he sells the virtues of his machine and quickly has the villagers eating out of his hand. Before long he’s erased the memories of life before he came and installed himself as village chief, presiding over a collection of beatific zombies content to do the literal spade work while Fortune Tien reigns supreme with an easy answer for everything. The parallels are obvious, even if Tien’s case is more extreme. History is rewritten, anyone who remembers differently has a faulty memory or is, perhaps, mad. Only Tien can be relied upon to arbitrate the truth of his false revolution.

The Worry Ridder itself is a fabulously designed piece of anachronistic technology, displaying memories like silent movies with scratchy sound and operated by a modern user interface complete with kitschy animation. Its evils can only be undone with the long lost “Soul Restorer” and its overuse seems to lead to an advanced senility. Though it does indeed erase memories and offer a kind of drugged up serenity, the machine cannot undo the underlying emotions and so those lingering feelings of love or attraction, misplaced or otherwise, remain even without the reasons for their existence. Love is the force which saves the day as Autumn, temporarily saved from her hellish life as the wife of Big Pie after becoming the “First Flower” of Tien’s dictatorial regime, continues to dream of her former love leading her to question Tien’s all powerful grip on the accepted truth.   

Meanwhile outside the village other threats are looming. Prior to their own revolution, the villagers had been excited to learn of the coming railways, mistakenly believing that randomly building an unconnected station (which is like a farm for trains!) would make them rich. The nefarious gangster quickly gets forgotten but he seems evil enough seeing as he’s flying kites made out the skins of his murder victims, though his biggest allies – the Cloud Clan, are led by a portly postmistress (Lin Mei-hsiu) to whom he presents an “iron horse” (i.e. a bicycle) which proves a surprisingly difficult challenge for her to master. The Cloud Clan’s main weapon is their sweet sound, beatboxing a background melody for the surprisingly beautiful voice of the postmistress often heard just before she whips out her giant machete and dispatches her foes with ruthless efficiency. An absurd satire on the ease with which tyranny makes use of human failings, Village of no Return ultimately wonders if blissful mindlessness is really all that bad if all your needs are met and you can count yourself “safe” and “happy”. A good question at the best of times, but one that seems oddly urgent.


Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in UK & US.

International trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)