Feminine Moves Win the Fight in Chinese Epic Shadow

Enjoying its North American Premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Chinese movie maestro Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou) returns with the beautifully stylized Shadow. In his latest, Yimou shares a visually arresting cinematic style for a timeless epic battle story. He  brilliantly contrasts emotive visuals that pay homage to China’s centuries-old tradition of ink-wash painting against fantastical fighting sequences that we haven’t seen since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

The film is shot entirely in black and white, with the exception of each actors pale, muted skin and rich rouge, whenever we witness the splatter of blood. Throughout Shadow Yimou sets an emotional tone through his deliberate use of colour. He presents an ancient Chinese kingdom on the verge of war, constantly covered in washed out grey and pelted with unrelenting rain.

The film is set in Pei, a kingdom ruled by a young and dangerous king (Zheng Kai). The king’s military commander (Deng Chao) has fought bravely on the battlefield, but requires a unique strategy to survive treachery in the king’s court. He cultivates a “shadow,” a look-alike who can fool the king and Pei’s enemies, which ultimately involves an intricate plan to invade a rival kingdom.

Shadow features all of the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from an epic Chinese martial arts drama: breathtaking landscapes, jaw-dropping palaces, ornate costumes, aggressive warriors, and pretty princesses. Yimou deserves the most praise for going off-script, injecting a refreshing feminist ideology into China’s most celebrated genre.

In planning for their “Trojan Horse attack,” the king’s military commander trains in combat with his wife (Sun Li). His wife’s graceful dance-like martial arts moves provide a groundbreaking moment for the macho military leader. He realizes the best way to overcome his enemy is by surprising him on the battlefield with what he calls “feminine moves.”

Thrilled by his revelation, he gathers a team of fighters and trains them on how to embrace their feminine side when fighting. It’s a long overdue narrative shift in Chinese martial arts films, elevating the power and purpose of female characters from disposable concubines and jaded Queens. When Mortal Kombat loving bros are shown that tapping into your feminine side offers the ultimate advantage to overthrowing your foe, the old tropes that support a culture of toxic masculinity begin to fade away.

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