Zhang Yimou’s three previous martial arts films have been explosions of both colour and action. Whatever else you thought of them, they were retina-searing spectacles of the highest order. Shadow sees Yimou returning to martial arts cinema, but with a very different aesthetic.
The story manages to be simple yet convoluted, revolving round the town of Jing, which the kingdom of Pei also claims the right to. The King of Pei (Ryan Zheng) is outraged that his top military commander (Chao Deng) has made a provocation against Jing, threatening the peace deal that keeps his kingdom safe. What the king doesn’t know is that his commander is actually ill, and plotting to take back the town and against the king, while using a ‘shadow’ – an impersonator – to be his public face.
The standout element of Shadow is not its plot or its storytelling, rather it is again Yimou’s stunning imagery that powers the film. In place of the colour soaked spectacles of his martial arts film or his recent English language effort The Great Wall, with its colour coded battalions of soldiers we have a very limited palette. For much of the running time, Yimou is essentially making a black and white film while shooting in colour. Yin and Yang are themes that run through every aspect of the film, from the imagery to the tactics of the king and his commander, to the look of the real commander and his shadow. The contrast is drawn most clearly in the film’s approach to colour. Costumes, sets and even exteriors are almost entirely black and white (the water surrounding the King of Pei’s palace looks like ink, accentuating the feeling that all of the characters and settings might be, at some level, little more than brush strokes on white paper). The detail is staggering, especially in the intricate design painted on the flowing robes and the carvings on battle armour.
As great as Shadow looks, I wish anything else about it were equally compelling. Having had Tony Ching Siu Tung as his action director on his previous kung fu films, Yimou here switches him for Huen Chiu Ku, who has decades of experiences, but far less at the level of a sole credited action choreographer. The action is solid; brutal and crunchy, but it lacks the grace of Yimou’s previous work and seems designed to be pulled off by actors with less martial arts training. Yimou captures many of the action images brilliantly. The unveiling of an umbrella weapon I’d love to see Mary Poppins bring out when she Returns in December is especially cool, as is a fight cross-cut with the real Commander and his wife (Sun Li) playing out a duel on their lutes, but the action sequences are few and almost entirely confined to the film’s second half.
The film’s first half focuses more on political intrigue, and on the relationship between a seemingly cowardly king and his more forthright commander. It’s a great deal of talk for a film I wish traded more in action, and to set up a plot that is, ultimately, just a few lines long. I wish I could give Shadow a stronger recommendation, because the great moments are there, and they do deserve to be seen on a big screen, but for the most part I found this a visual experience that never quite engaged me viscerally or intellectually.
From a shocking opening – a teacher leaps to his death during a lesson, leaving onlookers shocked, but for six students in his high-achieving class who seem non-plussed – Sebastien Marnier’s debut spins a slow burning but taut kind of low key horror which will work all the better on you the less you know going into it. When their new teacher (Pierre, played by Laurent Lafitte) arrives, he finds his class detached but intelligent, but soon becomes unnerved by their close knit group, led by Apolline (Luàna Bajrami) and Dimitri (Victor Bonnel) and begins to believe they are plotting something.
Marnier combines the drawn out tension of moments like the one in a swimming pool, when two of the boys hold one of the girls underwater, only for Apolline to say repeatedly that they should keep her under longer, with hallucinatory moments involving cockroaches and the children lurking ever closer to Pierre. Added to this is a sense of collective, or what should be collective, horror at the way the world is going, at how adults are blindly leading children into a future that seems ever less stable. In combining these themes and approaches, the film always finds a way, even in its most innoccuous moments, to set us on edge and to take us down a path were weren’t expecting. Echoes of other films, direct and elliptical, abound in the tone, with everything from Children of the Damned to various Invasions of the Body Snatchers to Take Shelter informing certain aspects of the film.
Marnier, as well as pitching the pace just right to disquet, but never to bore by dwelling in a moment too long, draws excellent performances from his cast. Luàna Bajrami is especially effective and chilling as Apolline, a student whose perfection (she is the school’s best student, with literally perfect grades) seems almost inhuman. If there’s a major issue with the film, it’s perhaps that aside from Apolline, Dimitri and the bullied Brice (Thomas Guy), the kids don’t get quite enough room to become fully developed characters. Lafitte’s down to earth performance makes him credible as a teacher, but also gives Pierre enough shading to feel like a rounded character rather than simple pawn for us to follow through these strange events, while other performances, like Pascal Greggory’s clipped headteacher, sew doubt about whther the problem with the school is simply six children.
There is plenty to discover in School’s Out and, I’d suggest, plenty to think and talk about afterwards. It’s worth seeking out at LFF if you don’t mind your horror somewhat low key.