The grand spectacle has long been tackled by master Chinese director Zhang Yimou. His wuxia epics feature staggering battles that defy gravity while placed within the context of intrigue-loaded historical fictions. When you go see a Yimou vision, you’re guaranteed big-scale entertainment paired with high-stakes drama and a dash of ancient wisdom. And that’s exactly what his new film, Shadow, delivers in its gorgeously choreographed sword duels, watercolor bi-chromatic palettes and sumptuous costumes and production design, it’s a film that can almost make us forget Yimou’s 2016 misstep in the Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall. It’s largely similar to some of Yimou’s previous works, Hero and House of Flying Daggers in more general forms, but this new effort does also brings a slightly subtler touch from Yimou.
Centering on two feuding kingdoms, Yan and Pei, that have had a centuries-old saga but more recently the two have a peace treaty that stands as long as the King of Pei (Ryan Zheng) doesn’t attempt to reclaim a city lost in battle. A complacent cretin, the King does not want to stir the pot, only to ensure that his throne won’t be taken from him. But nonetheless, Commander Yu (Deng Chao), the kingdom’s greatest hero, has gone ahead and set up a mortal duel with Yan’s General Yang (Hu Jun). The move earns the Commander a shameful demotion from the King, but that’s all part of his plan. The Commander we first meet is actually nothing but a “shadow,” an imposter named Jing (also played by Deng Chao), who looks exactly like the real high-ranking officer. But to a certain extent, the actual Commander, now a sickly-looking man, has become the shadow since he lives hidden in a secret lair plotting. Jing, who’s grown up and trained in martial arts with the Commander with the sole purpose of becoming his body double, is now also the one who spends much time with the Commander’s wife, Madam (Sun Li), and they’re just might be some romantic sparks between the two.
Working in impeccable synchronicity is the trifecta of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, production designer Ma Kwong Wing, and costume designer Chen Minzheng all together they’ve constructed the mostly bi-chromatic world which every piece of clothing, armor and use of light all aligning with Yimou’s sensibilities on this film. Throughout his filmography, Yimou tends to gracefully implement slow motion to accentuate action sequences, and if there are fewer set pieces in Shadow than in his previous works, they are largely at the least on par in impact. Confrontations are few and far between in Shadow, because most of the film’s running time is devoted to the twisty story. With that twisty story though, Shadow does carry its hand of familiarity and some rushed side plot points. But it’s also a marvel of cinematic craftsmanship, acting as both a return to form for Zhang Yimou and a perceptible departure. His characters are at their most grounded, both emotionally and physically, just enough for you to both be in awe visually and gripped internally.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld
What ever really happened to Dag Hammarskjöld? Was the plane crash that killed the United Nations secretary-general and fifteen others on the night of September 18, 1961, just as he was on his negotiate a cease-fire with Belgian-backed Katangese forces in the Congo Crisis, the result of pilot error, as the initial investigations concluded? Or was Hammarskjöld’s plane shot down? Was it the work of Belgian mercenaries? The copper-mining conglomerate Union Minière? British intelligence? The CIA? Or a shady white supremacist paramilitary group, known as SAIMR, with possible links to all four? Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld brings all those questions and more, with answers coming few and far between.
Danish gonzo journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger is hardly the first person to put forward the idea that Hammarskjöld was the victim of geopolitical foul play, and will assuredly not be the last. But to claim that this film is really about Hammarskjöld would be jumping to far ahead. It doesn’t take that long before Brügger, by his own admission, becomes less interested in the idealistic Swedish diplomat than in the potential villains of the story. Brügger here also adopts the role of paranoid investigator, narrating Cold Case Hammarskjöld, from a hotel room in Kinshasa with Post-It notes on the walls to two secretaries who occasionally serve as audience stand-ins. (Why exactly are there two secretaries? Brügger, himself says he doesn’t know and to be fair the cut backs to the hotel room do actually get a little annoying.) Brügger does have a straight man through it all though, Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish aid worker who started his own investigation into Hammarskjöld’s death.
Filmed over the course of several years, Cold Case initially focuses on the two’s attempts to uncover new evidence and conduct interviews. But as the film continues, their attention drifts away from the plane crash and toward the South African Institute For Maritime Research (SAIMR) and a L. Ron Hubbard-like figure in Keith Maxwell, an opportunist, quack doctor, reputed soldier of fortune, and serial liar who left behind a trail of paranoia and a rambling, apparent autobiographical manuscript after his death. SAIMR enters the fold through “Operation Celeste,” a document that appears to describe the plot to assassinate Hammarskjöld, first uncovered in 1998. But at the time, Operation Celeste was dismissed by intelligence agencies as a vintage forgery produced by the Soviets. But it’s this kind of denial in which great conspiracy theories are born — because lets say if SAIMR were real, why would so many people pretend it never existed? And what did Maxwell, a man who, at different times and to different people, implied himself to be a British intelligence asset, a mad scientist obsessed with creating a white majority in South Africa, have to do with it?
Told with fourth-wall breaking, connect-the-dots mania, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a heck of story, extending beyond the 1960s into the AIDS pandemic, possible human medical experimentation, and phony vaccines. It’s filled with people who believe that they were apart of something terrifying. But the real question isn’t whether they’re actually telling the truth, but how much of it Brügger actually believes. (He doesn’t exactly have a fully trustworthy rap sheet, as his last documentary feature, The Ambassador, was nearly entirely a prank.) As for a whole Cold Case Hammarskjöld, largely struggles with its structure, some might even call it formless, and Brügger, at times, clearly puts amusing showmanship (often involving himself) in front of cohesive journalism. In doesn’t entirely get in the way of presenting his case, but the touch of annoyance is still there. And in the end, there’s not really a way to give a definitive conclusion about the circumstances of Hammarskjöld’s death, Brügger does he best to at least spin a heck of conspiracy theory. A conspiracy that is almost certainly a crock, but also one that is, in some ways, unusually engaging.