With his 30+ year career as one of China’s prominent cinematic voices, director Zhang Yimou’s résumé plays like an eclectic stew, a series of seemingly random darts strewn about the whole of the narrative spectrum. He has tried his hand at a nearly endless assortment of genre explorations, from elegant cultural examinations (Raise the Red Lantern, To Live) to gravity-defying wuxia mainstays (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) to Americanized monster flicks (The Great Wall). With his latest, Shadow, Zhang appears to be pulling from each facet of his film fascinations, constructing a fragrant pastiche that serves as a glowing testament to his most compelling qualities as a storyteller.
Set several centuries ago, there’s a peace treaty between two competitive kingdoms, but trouble is brewing as King Peiliang (Zheng Kai) has his eye on the city he once lost in battle. Soon, his conquering hero Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) is set to duel with the opposing kingdom’s general (Hu Jun) to the death. However, the commander we meet is not actually Ziyu but a “shadow,” a body double who has been serving in his place while he himself lives a life of illness and isolation.
Despite its intricate character work and layered political intrigue, Shadow is essentially a wuxia spectacle piece disguised as an art film. Seasoned cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) abandons the vibrant pastoralism normally associated with the genre for monochromic saturation, stylizing the palate like a graphic novel so that the color truly comes alive once the blood starts flowing. Although it’s depressing, rain-soaked aesthetic conjures dreary vibes, this isn’t the somber melodrama it hints at. Shadow is a thrilling feast for the senses. It’s eye-popping visuals alone are worth the price of admission, as we are treated to a banquet of gleeful anachronisms, from simple touches (automatic crossbows, bamboo scuba gear, etc.) to show-stopping elaborate set pieces, such as a sea of soldiers hidden beneath spinning, bladed umbrellas are propelled toward their enemies in unison.
But that’s not to say that Zhang Yimou doesn’t also throw his weight behind the narrative nuances of this Shakespearean power struggle. Shadow has a lot of plot to digest, and it takes its time setting the stage for its lofty political thriller. The first third of the runtime can feel a bit clumsy in its exposition dump, as characters are introduced by simply entering a scene and directly stating their relationship to the plot. However, once all of the pieces have been set, the context proves to be vital to the cutthroat chess match. Still, the dialogue exchanges (delivered in the standard larger than life wuxia fashion) never seem to be nearly as gripping as the philosophical implications behind them would have you expect. As such, the underlying story can often take a backseat to the lavish battle sequences, but its obsession with the relationship between the yin and the yang continues to drive the action home.
Shadow is undoubtedly a striking technical feat, thanks in large part to its immersive sound design. But it is also a grand showcase of the director’s adept ability to weave intricate themes into even the most savage assaults. One could call this a return to form for Zhang Yimou, but that’s only half the picture. Shadow finds the accomplished filmmaker looking toward the future, building upon his established oeuvre and expanding upon it to craft something that feels wholly rejuvenated.