Having watched several movies with people doing stupid things, it is liberating to watch one where many important characters are doing smart things. 影 (Shadow) (Blu-ray release 2019-5-10) is inspired by a story of The Three Kingdoms, but too much has been changed so the names of the characters are changed as well. The term shadow refers to the use of body doubles of important people to avoid assassination – which is exactly what happened in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002).
In this movie, the protagonist is a shadow of a military commander. Directed by the real commander who is seriously hurt in the previous battle, the shadow commander asks for a duel with the enemy in order to recover a city lost previously. The king only wants peace and is therefore not pleased, so he fires the fake commander. The real commander hides in a secret place to plan this and something ulterior. To avoid detection by the king he recreates his wound on the protagonist. His wife takes pity on the protagonist for the suffering.
Of the relatively few mainland China movies I’ve watched in the last decade, this movie is the best. When I thought all possible beautiful kung fu moves have been seen before, it manages to come up with something visually new. More importantly, the advancement in picture is revolutionary. Whereas Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse advanced the animated picture, this movie turns the pictures of reality into gorgeous Chinese ink paintings. Technicality aside, the story is also solid. Its power struggle is filled with deception, and some important characters are not really who they seem to be. Although the movie starts slow, it combines a really good story with gorgeous visuals to be both entertaining and artful.
SPOILER – Shadow Explained
Who told the king the hiding place of the real commander? The captain did, since the protagonist and the wife cannot. Recall that the king shot him using an arrow but missed him. He picked the arrow up and hurt himself. He is loyal to the king, and the arrow incident is merely a ruse to allow him to find the real commander, because the king has suspected the protagonist is a fake since the beginning and asked the protagonist to play the musical instrument. The evidence of his loyalty is seen when he brought the king to the dead sister, and is also seen in an important deleted scene – the king met him in the bamboo forest and revealed to him the plan to retake the city was made by the real commander and the king together. The king appearing to be cowardice and seeking for peace, firing two important military personnel and accepting the unreasonable request of marriage, are therefore also a ruse, in order to deceive the enemy.
Who ordered the killing of the protagonist and his mother? The real commander did but tried to the frame the king for it, because otherwise he could not have known the death of the mother in such a short time. Besides, he has every reason to kill the protagonist after knowing the wife’s affection for and sleeping with the protagonist.
What happens to the wife at the end? At the beginning of the movie it states that the wife needs to make the most important decision in her life. This decision would be choosing between opening the door and revealing that the protagonist is a fake, or not doing it. She probably witnesses the protagonist becoming the new king. If she chooses to keep silent, she becomes the queen. This scenario is the most likely, as I will explain why the other scenarios are less likely below.
Given the loyalty of the captain to the king, it is not unreasonable to consider the possibility of the captain killing the shadow commander. However, it is not practically a simple thing to do, because the other officials may not believe him. More importantly, if this happens the wife no longer needs to make that important decision, contradicting the movie. If he kills the protagonist, it is very questionable whether he can become a king. If he keeps silent, he gets a promotion to commander. In fact, in several other alternate outcomes he always gets to be promoted. If the real commander wins and becomes a king, the captain becomes a commander as promised. If the king wins but the protagonist is killed by the enemy, the captain will also get promoted.
There is yet another popular suggestion that the dead king is a shadow, and the real king comes out to kill the protagonist. If this happens, this again contradicts the wife’s need to make the important decision. Since the king has already deceived everybody, giving him yet another deception would be redundant for the story.