This is the eleventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 11 is called "Fifth Generation Week":
Beginning in the mid-late 1980s, the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers brought increased popularity of Chinese cinema abroad. Most of the filmmakers who made up the Fifth Generation had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and included Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Fifth Generation film.
My favorite "Fifth Generation" movie I have seen is probably Farewell My Concubine. As for Zhang Yimou, his movies are always gorgeous, and I usually like them, but for whatever reason, I've never found him great (on my list of favorite directors, he is #97). Shadow ranks with his best, and yes, it's gorgeous, but that means less than you'd think. It's a definite case of Taste Preferences, and you love movies that look great, his films in general and Shadow in particular should be your cup of tea. As I once said of Zhang's House of Flying Daggers, it was "the Elvira Madigan of its day. Whether that's a compliment or a pan is up to your subjective judgment."
The look of the film is unusual ... it's shot in color, but the sets and pretty much everything else work on black and white tones, which makes Shadow different from what you normally see. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding explained:
Once Zhang decided he was going to make a motion-picture version of a Chinese ink-brush painting, every department worked on every detail from it—to design of the sets to costumes to props. They were all what you saw on the screen, and there were screens and screens in the palace that were calligraphy on silk—like, waves and waves of them—and the interiors were all black, gray, and white, and so were the costumes, so that what you saw on the screen was actually what we shot in that regard.
Of course, we filmed in color, but that was the color of what we were filming, and with the skin and blood, there was some color-grading to make it all feel like it was of a piece. Basically, the departments, including FX, worked together to make sure what we built and what people were wearing was what we saw on the monitor and what we got in the movie. We had very little green-screen, so it was all a work of, “How do we create a Chinese ink-brush painting movie?”
No question Zhang got what he wanted, and it's a feast for the eyes. The action scenes are also effectively choreographed:
Shadow takes a long time setting up the various characters and their relationships to each other, and after a while, you might wonder where the action is. It's all necessary and pays off once the stories of the characters merge, but the film still feels a bit long. That pay off, though, is pretty spectacular. And the character arcs are Shakespearean, in a Titus Andronicus kind of way, especially in the final scenes.