Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s latest treads familiar territory. American audiences will know him best for his colorful wuxias: martial arts films set in ancient China that are often fantastic in scope. Hero (2002), starring Jet Li, and House of Flying Daggers (2004) should ring a bell, and so too should the controversial Matt Damon-helmed The Great Wall (2016), if only as a massive box office misfire. Another beautifully choreographed wuxia, what sets Shadow apart is its uniquely monochromatic color scheme, a departure for a filmmaker normally inclined to vibrancy.
Set in China during the Three Kingdoms era, a pleasure-mongering King (Zheng Kai) seeks at all costs to keep the peace between warring factions, even when his rivals occupy a nearby city that belongs to him. Palace advisors and other royals are at odds with the King’s priorities, but little can be done it seems, unless treason is put on the table. Meanwhile the King’s chief commander, Zi Yu (Deng Chao), finds himself badly wounded from battle and goes into hiding, enlisting the help of his “shadow,” a look-alike peasant also played by Deng, to carry out his political plans. But the shadow is not exactly a willing collaborator, especially as the commander begins to abuse the working class double. Thoughts of betrayal begin to ferment. Another plot twist comes in the form of a sexual tryst, as the shadow begins to fall in love with the commander’s wife (Sun Li), who is serendipitously skilled in a dance-like fighting style that makes use of an umbrella to absorb and counter offensive attacks.
There’s a David and Goliath-esque duel, a Trojan horse in the form of a Ying and Yang, and a bloody palace showdown ending in regicide. Let’s just say a lot takes place in Zhang’s fictional world. Though very little beyond the captivating training and fight sequences, and the occasional frenzied mandolin playing, feels consequential or worth remembering. Like the narrative interruptions of a video game, the first half of the film exists to justify a string of action and gameplay. As the movie pivots into its generously bloody second half, metal war umbrellas are scene stealers even as important characters go under in the Commander’s unsanctioned siege of the occupied city.
Whether Shadow is well-acted or not seems beside the point. Even as the action overshadows the story’s slim class commentary and the basic motivating philosophy of enlightened balance – doppelgangers, ying and yang, black and white – Zhang is also very clearly uninterested in dramatic realism. Exaggerated performances and kitschy melodrama play well into the film’s operatic approach, and humor plays an important role in alienating the palace intrigue as a comedy and tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. At times, I couldn’t help but remember the (also) eternal rainy nights of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, a stylish and seedy crime flick that similarly places style over substance. Of course this age-old dichotomy isn’t exactly a meaningful appraisal of art, so much as it puts a measuring stick to whether or not the story will resonate on a higher level. Shadow’s story does not, but that doesn’t mean audiences won’t have something to appreciate from Zhang’s visually spellbinding, black, white, and blood red wartime fantasy flick.