SHADOW, the new film from Yimou Zhang (of Hero and House of the Flying Daggers fame), is a sort of cinematic calligraphy. The text might not always make sense, but there’s a level of beauty and grace on the surface that makes it a pleasure to behold.
Set in a hyper-stylized ancient China, the story is one of palace intrigue between two regimes. Commander Yu (Deng Chao) of the Pei kingdom is forced into hiding after being badly injured. In order to prevent others from viewing his injuries as a symbol of weakness, he acquires the help of Jing, his lookalike, to act as his double (or shadow). As time goes by, it’s made clear that Yu has constructed a plan of Machiavellian scale – one that may earn them back the kingdom that they’ve lost.
Much time is taken to establish the political context between the two regimes and to establish the players. It’s a labyrinthine tale rooted in classic Chinese lore with a touch of Shakespearean drama – a story that might not take form after just one viewing. Anxious viewers may find themselves turned off by its talky, unhurried pace, but each scene has something to offer, and when complemented by such surrounding beauty, it’s not difficult to become entranced. Despite any confusion surrounding the smoky plot threads, the dialogue remains elegantly written.
SHADOW’s most gripping quality is its stylistic package. Nearly the entire film is presented in shades of black, white and grey. The costumes, props, and environments consist of monochromatic textures, taking inspiration from the yin-and-yang diagram as well as ink brush painting. The only colors that appear on screen are from skin tone or the blood spilled during combat. It’s a shame that the film isn’t as sonically bold as its visual counterpart, but the music itself (most notably in the form of a Zither) carries significant weight in the story.
While the use of combat in the film is somewhat minimal for an action film, its presence is memorable. Duels are held in stunning locales, from stone courtyards with yin-and-yang diagrams painted onto the floor, droplets of rain cascading down, to bamboo battlefields hundreds of feet above the water. A weapon of choice is a customized take on the traditional umbrella, offering up a stark contrast to the brute force of the common saber. Zhang’s ability to mirror visual and thematic motifs throughout, such as agility versus force, demonstrates an attention to detail rarely seen in Western action thrillers.
SHADOW might be the most surprising film of What The Fest!? It’s a hundred million dollar drama requiring the viewer to assemble dozens of pieces into a coherent puzzle. Its set pieces are imaginatively executed and purposeful. It presents a level of artistry rarely seen in action films and is an unquestionable return to form for both Zhang and Wuxia cinema.