Crafting ground-breaking and genre-busting films for over 30 years now, Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou shows no signs of decline with his latest masterpiece, Shadow.
Playing like a twisted Shakespearean drama with royal intrigue, ghostly doppelgangers and maddening betrayals, what’s most bracing about the effort is Zhang’s rigorous visual palette. Typically working in eye-popping flourishes — think House of Flying Daggers (2004), Hero (2002) or especially his landmark debut Red Sorghum (1987) — Shadow is a bland, almost black and white affair. But it’s in color. Allow me to explain.
Utilizing muted black and white colors, as well as a mountain setting drenched in a Biblical rain storm for the entire duration of the film, Zhang allows the neutral colors to sink under our skin before shocking us with buckets of blood in the final two-thirds. The gnarly wounds and bloodletting is that much more poetic compared to the monotone drama that proceeded it.
Balancing out the hyperbolic action is a carefully plotted love triangle between two identical looking men (both portrayed by Chao Deng) and the wife of one of them (Li Sun) as they maneuver to regain the city of Jing, a place they both grew up in.
Hindering their efforts to take back their beloved region is the king (Ryan Zheng), distressed not only by an ever-evolving circle of confidants and warrior generals, but a nagging desire to keep the balance of calm established by Jing’s king (Jun Hu).
While Zhang takes his time establishing the clearly delineated villains and good guys at first, he maintains a grip that’s both aesthetically and emotionally gripping as Shadow culminates in a wickedly good series of action sequences and triple crosses that clearly signify he’s having a great time co-mingling the delirious with the serious. In one battle sequence, an army invades a city by clamping their metal-shard shields around themselves and bounce through the downhill village streets, slicing anything that gets in their way. Playing like something ripped from the cells of a manga, this type of action is consistent with Zhang’s vision of grand spectacle.
But none of the outlandish would land properly without a core of character sustainability underneath. As the double character, Chao Deng personifies two diverse people with lethal precision, making us believe both men and their choices. As the woman caught in the middle, Li Sun continues Yimou’s tradition of strong women characters facing the consequences of a warring man’s world.
Seemingly lost in the cinematic wilderness for the past few years, even though I seem to be one of the few people who greatly enjoyed his previous film, The Great Wall (2017), it’s not outrageous to claim that with Shadow, Zhang Yimou reclaims his status as master world-builder and flavorful storyteller.
Portions of this review have been previously published as part of my coverage of the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival.
Shadow opens in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, May 17.