Blu-ray Review: Zhang Yimou’s SHADOW

Aug 11, 2019 Posted by in DVD/Blu-ray, Reviews | Comments

The great walled city of Jing had changed hands many times over the decades, but in order to finally declare peace, a duel was held between warriors representing the last two remaining kingdoms. Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) of the Pei kingdom lost to the “unbeatable” Yang Cang (Hu Jun) of the Yang kingdom, who badly wounded Ziyu with his saber. Even though his kingdom lost, the current king of Pei (Zheng Kai) is enjoying this time of peace and has no intentions of trying to take back the city. He is in a position of wealth and power and sees no need to rock the boat. So it is no surprise that he is livid to discover that, without his authorization, Commander Ziyu has challenged Yang Cang to a rematch on his behalf. The king strips Ziyu of his rank and privilege, and even offers up his sister, Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), as a concubine for Yang Cang’s son Yang Ping (Leo Wu) in order to reestablish the peace. This doesn’t go over well with Qingping, who does not want to be anyone’s concubine, or with General Tian (Wang Qianyuan), who is in favor of allowing the rematch to take place.

It turns out that Commander Ziyu is not actually who he says he is. When he was young, Ziyu saw his own father betrayed and killed, so he decided to take on a secret body double. He found a young boy with a tremendous resemblance to himself, took him in, and started training him. The real Commander Ziyu was badly wounded in his initial duel with Yang, and so, for the past year, Jingzhou (also played by Deng Chao), named for Jing City, where he was found has been forced to take Ziyu’s place as his “shadow” while he recovers in a hidden cave below the Commander’s residence. The only person who knows this secret is the Commander’s wife, Madam Xiao Ai (Sun Li). Ziyu has been training Jingzhou for the rematch with Yang Cang, but knows that his shadow’s chances of surviving the encounter are very slim. His defeat seams inevitable, that is, until Madam comes up with a promising umbrella fighting strategy that may just work to defeat Yang’s deadly saber. Ziyu, with the help of his wife, General Tian and an army of convicts, plots his siege of Jing City and ascension to the throne, but King Pei suspects that something isn’t quite right with Ziyu.

Shadow starts off a bit slow as it sets up the political atmosphere and introduces the characters. The king is this spoiled brat who is happy maintaining the status quo, and will sell out even his own sister if it means he gets to continue living the way he does. On the other hand, Jingzhou was taken from his home as a small boy, and has been a slave all his life, serving as Ziyu’s shadow. While his chances of a victory are slim, he sees the impending battle with Yang as a chance to return to his home of Jing City and be reunited with his mother. Ziyu is power hungry, eager to prove himself after that devastating loss to Yang. And his wife, Madam, is caught in the middle of it all.

While there is some display of martial arts during Jingzhou’s training, it isn’t until the rematch and battle for Jing City get underway that the film truly gets action-packed and exciting. The visual look of the film is quite unique. It appears almost black and white, with the only noticeable color being that of the flesh tones of the hands and faces that are visible out of the character’s robes. Once the battle gets underway, things get a bit brighter due the fact that we are now outdoors, and the red crimson color of blood can also be seen on clothing, or mixing with the puddles of water that line the streets. Much of the battle and rematch take place in the rain, and this is beautifully shot, making use of slow motion and aerial shots to catch all of the action, and to show how the characters and their weapons glide through the raindrops. The choreographed, tactical use of umbrellas by the invading army is quite stunning. And the same goes for the umbrella versus saber battle between Yang and Jingzhou.

Actor Deng Chao does an excellent job of making Ziyu and Jingzhou look and feel like two completely different characters. They have such different physicality and mannerisms—in fact, I didn’t even realize they were played by the same actor until I watched the Blu-ray bonus features. In the film Ziyu is constantly remarking how the two look so much alike, and I had a hard time even seeing this resemblance—Ziyu looks so much older, more worn down and emaciated. His original battle with Yang really took a toll on him.

Shadow marks Well Go’s first foray into 4K Ultra HD, but I was only sent the Blu-ray for review, which looks and sounds amazing. The picture is quite beautiful and detailed, and I can only imagine how much more stunning it would look in 4K HDR, especially with the added color and detail for the rain-soaked battle in the second half of the film. The Blu-ray includes both the original Mandarin Atmos soundtrack as well as an English Dolby Digital dub. I primarily watched using the English option as I found that it was easier to recognize the inflections in the way lines were delivered, and found that some of the sarcasm of one of the characters wasn’t readily evident when just reading the subtitles. However, I think that in the English dub, the king comes off a little more whiny and nasally, and his sister a little too girly and high-pitched. That said, both audio options sound great, and provide an incredibly immersive viewing experience, with the sounds of thunder and torrential downpour coming from overhead, or the sounds of blades whizzing by. The on-screen action is really enhanced by the film’s amazing soundtrack.

The Blu-ray disc also includes about 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes (all in Mandarin with English subtitles), and trailers for the film as well as previews for other Well Go releases. The Blu-ray/DVD combo release comes packed in standard HD keepcase, without a slipcover. No digital copy is included.

What’s Included:

Film: (1:55:46)


    • 1080p / Widescreen 2.35:1
    • Audio: Mandarin Dolby Atmos in Dolby TrueHD, English Dolby Digital 5.1
    • Subtitles: English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese


    • 480i / Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
    • Audio: Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1, Mandarin Stereo, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Stereo
    • Subtitles: English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese

The same features can be found on both the Blu-ray and the DVD. Bonus material is presented in Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles. All bonus material automatically plays back-to-back once started.

  • Making Of
    • About the Double (2:17)
      The filmmakers discuss the role of the double, and and how he is both in a position of power but also a slave to his position. Includes behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with screenwriter Li Wei and director Zhang Yimou.
    • The Director (3:17)
      Collection of behind-the-scenes footage of the director at work meeting with various departments, as well as testimonials from the actors and other crew members about what it was like working with him.
    • The Unknown Side of Zhang Yimou (3:03)
      Director Zhang Yimou celebrates his birthday with his family, eats noodles, laughs on set, and organizes his collection of movie posters. Also includes behind-the-scenes footage and testimonials from the cast and crew.
    • Behind the Scenes (2:43)
      A look at the accomplishments of the award-winning cast and director, followed by a collection of behind-the-scenes footage from the film.
    • Heroes (4:06)
      Interviews with and behind-the-scenes footage of some of the cast and crew at work, including photographer Bai Xiaoyan, background actor Zhang Yi, special effects engineer Zhang Tao, chef Li Haoxue, head of prop team Zhou Wei, and assistant director Ren Maocheng.
    • Deng Chao (2:49)
      Actor Deng Chao talks about the difference between his two characters of Ziyu and Jingzhou and the challenges and physical requirements of each. Also includes behind-the-scenes footage.
    • Zheng Kai (2:02)
      Actor Zheng Kai talks about playing the multi-faceted king. Includes behind-the-scenes footage on him on set, and learning how to write calligraphy on the ground from his grandfather.
  • International Trailer (2:05)
  • US Trailer (1:56)
  • Previews (5:38)
    • IP Man 4 Teaser (:34)
    • Legend of the Demon Cat (2:05)
    • Better Days (1:26)
    • Freaks (1:35)


Final Thoughts:

My Rating

While I found Shadow a little slow for the first half of the film, the excitement really kicks into high gear for the second half of the film, providing some thoroughly entertaining action sequences and interesting twists and turns to the story. Star Deng Chao really shines in his dual roles, making it feel like two different actors portraying the characters. The Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent, and even includes a small selection of behind-the-scenes bonus material. Well Go is releasing this film as its first foray into 4K, and those who have the ability to playback in 4K should certainly consider the upgrade as I suspect it will look stunning.