Chinese director Zhang Yimou is a prolific, multi-genre filmmaker, but among mainstream Western viewers, he is likely best known for his luscious, pseudo-historical wuxia action epics, such as Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Although his films are keenly attuned to the raw cinematic bliss of, say, a sumptuously staged, slow-motion sword duel, Zhang has always been too besotted with grand storytelling to deliver “mere” genre exercises. Consistent with the Chinese literary form from which they are derived, his wuxia films are dense and flavorful things, suffused with romance, tragedy, intrigue, and the heightened yet intricate drama of personal and national honor. (Perhaps tellingly, Zhang’s attempt at a Hollywood-style action-fantasy, 2016’s The Great Wall, is a tedious clunker, distinguished by little but its bold production design.)
Zhang’s deliriously stylish (and seriously grim) new feature, Shadow, is another film in the wuxia tradition, but in this instance the director has literally drained the color from his fantastical tale. Desaturating a film’s palette into grayish-brown murk is now an unfortunately ubiquitous post-production technique in American blockbusters, but Zhang gives it new life by building his feature’s entire aesthetic around it. Although it was not shot in black-and-white, Shadow is virtually monochromatic in its final form, like a bracing, modernist production of some canonical opera or ballet. The film’s sets, props, and costumes are all rendered in waterlogged hues of charcoal, nickel, and dirty white, evoking the ink-wash style of traditional Chinese painting. Only the actors’ skin and the copious gouts of wine-dark blood disrupt the film’s severe, ashen palette.
It’s a fitting choice: Shadow is one of the bleakest wuxia films in memory, often leaning towards the gory, Shakespearean cruelty of a Japanese samurai feature. Akira Kurosawa’s brutal Macbeth retelling, Throne of Blood (1957), and Takashi Miike’s mud-spattered remake of 13 Assassins (2010) stand out as likely touchstones, but Shadow never feels like a Chinese riff on another cinematic genre. It remains a wuxia epic in its bones, one in which a Taoism-informed struggle over identity plays out in the context of palace skullduggery, vengeful duels, and a preposterous street-to-street epic battle in the pouring rain.
Although it ostensibly takes place during the Three Kingdoms period of the third century, B.C., Shadow is effectively set in an anachronistic “Long Ago” China. Following their military victory over a common enemy, the rival kingdoms of Pei and Yang have settled into a tense and lopsided postwar alliance. Once a part of Pei territory, the city of Jing is now under the control of the feared Commander Yang Cang (Hu Jun) and his forces. This occupation chafes many of Pei’s leaders, but not its haughty and capricious king, Pei Liang (Ryan Zheng), who is so smug about forging an alliance with Yang that he’s composed an epic poem about it, decorating his throne room with hand-painted scrolls of verse. The king’s complacency isn’t shared by his chief military commander, the stoic Zi Yu (Deng Chao), who has recently – and without royal permission – challenged Yang Cang to a duel, with Jing City itself as the stakes.
When the film opens, the king is dressing down Zi Yu for this reckless act of provocation, while the commander’s devoted wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li) and the king’s headstrong sister Qing Pen (Guan Xiaotong) look on in (mostly) mute protest. There’s a queer tension running through this confrontation, and it comes to a head when the king rather perplexingly commands Zi Yu and Xiao Ai to play one of their legendary zither duets. Both husband and wife beg off in deference to oaths they’ve sworn, and soon the audience is clued in on the reason for all the anxious glances. “Zi Yu” is, in fact, a double named Jing Zhou, a lookalike groomed since childhood to misdirect assassins and even take the commander’s place should the need arise. The real Zi Yu (Deng again) skulks in a secret subterannean chamber, ocassionally creeping about inside the palace walls to spy on the court. After sustaining a grievous wound from Yang Cang’s guandao a year ago, Zi Yu fell into ill health, and he has since retreated from the public eye, allowing Jing Zhou to assume his place in court. (Unlike the musically virtuosic Zi Yu, Jing Zhou is a novice at the zither; hence the nervous excuses when the king orders him to perform.)
Zi Yu's wife Xiao Ai is in on this elaborate deception, which takes on a new urgency as the mortally injured commander grows closer to death. He regards Jing's upcoming duel with Yang Cang as his revenge by proxy, although the plan becomes complicated by numerous factors. The king’s anger at “Zi Yu” over the unsanctioned challenge is one hurdle, as the monarch punishes the commander by stripping him of his rank and status. There’s also the matter of an oracle’s prophecy, which stipulates that the seventh straight day of rain is the opportune time for an attack on Jing City. Why this might be salient is never fully elucidated, but no matter: The prediction is there simply to provide a deadline for the film's action. While the kingdom is pummeled by unrelenting downpours, Zi Yu subjects Jing to a brutal regime of training exercises, in the hopes of working out a winning strategy for use against the mighty Yang Cang. Meanwhile, Jing Zhou recruits a disgraced military officer (Wang Qianyuan) and a horde of ragged forest bandits for an audacious Plan B. Qing Ping seethes as the king and his chief administrator (Wang Jingchun) conspire to marry her off to Yang Cang’s arrogant son (Wu Lei). And Xiao Ai is befuddled by her emergent affection for Jing Zhou, whose decency and hunky vulnerability contrast with her real husband’s increasing physical infirmity and wild-eyed, egomaniacal scheming.
It’s standard wuxia stuff, for the most part: bold-stroke conflicts and big emotional beats, as expressed through the somewhat convoluted lens of courtly politics in a never-was ancient China. The screenplay by Zhang and Li Wei is vague on some aspects of the backstory – Why is Jing City so vital to Pei’s national pride? – but all the viewer really needs to know is that wresting the city from its Yang occupiers is Zi Yu’s all-consuming ambition. And Jing Zhou’s as well, for once the city is retaken, the commander will release his common-born double from his obligations, permitting him to return to the humble house where his aged, blind mother still lives.
Zhang adds a layer of thematic complexity to Shadow’s straightforward stakes via Taoist motifs, most conspicuously the enormous taijitu (“yin yang” symbol) that adorns the rain-slicked stone floor of Zi Yu and Jing Zhou's sparring chamber. Complementary and oppositional forces – light and dark, male and female, strength and grace – run through the story, even finding expression in the martial-arts styles used by the characters. (The film mines droll humor from a swishy, “feminine” weapon style involving a parasol, before revealing its unexpected lethality.)
Despite these stark elements, the ever-present subtext of Shadow is that nothing about this scenario is black-and-white: The film images themselves are composed of a stunning gradient of grays, reflecting the ambiguous moral and philosophical dilemmas that the characters confront. Although it is embellished with superheroic feats of martial prowess, Zhang’s feature highlights that the savagery of the world is natural and human in origin, not supernatural. The pitch-black, assaultive shadows of the German Expressionists don’t fit here, nor does the haunted gloom of the gothic, with its sharp good-vs.-evil dichotomies. This is a film of natural and industrial grays – storms and soot, slate and steel – befitting a story in which the characters must contend with pounding rain and flying blades.
Twinnings and reversals also abound. Zi Yu mockingly calls Jing his “shadow,” but it’s the haggard commander who is beginning to resemble a shade – shuffling unseen through the palace as if half ghost, while the rot from his festering wound courses through his veins like black bile. For his part, Jing Zhou is obliged to confront his own hollowness, as the mission he’s trained for his entire life reaches its do-or-die conclusion. Zhang rather cunningly turns his protagonist’s tabula rasa blandness – a common flaw in action epics of this sort – into a source of angst, lending an almost existential weight to Jing’s tribulations. (Without Zi Yu, who the hell is he?)
Real-life spouses Deng and Sun do a splendid job of suggesting the conflicted longing for connection that throbs beneath their characters’ all-business subterfuge and Confucian propriety. Deng’s Jing Zhou gallantly departs the marital bed every evening to sleep on the floor in an adjacent chamber, and the officious yet intimate way he performs this nightly ritual – and the careful way that Sun’s Xiao Ai watches him – elegantly signals that their relationship status has shifted to “It’s Complicated.” Zi Yu, meanwhile, is a more exaggerated figure, limping about on scrawny legs that grow ever more unsteady, all while sliding into madness with a mirthless cackle. (He nimbleness never seems diminished, however, when he is wielding his bamboo staff in the training yard.) With death looming over him, Zi seems eager to inflict suffering on everyone around him, especially Jing Zhou. In this way, the dying commander betrays the extent to which his supposedly single-minded plan for vengeance has been tainted by resentment for his handsome, able-bodied double.
Shadow is an undeniably gorgeous feature, its monochromatic palette paradoxically opening creative avenues for Zhang, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, and production designer Horace Ma. The costumes, supervised by Li Meng, are a notable standout: Straying deliberately into an ahistorical modern sensibility, the silk robes worn by the characters often seem to have been tie-dyed in Rorschach patterns. Still, for all the film’s startling set-pieces and memorable touches – from a bizarre, tumbling stampede of bladed umbrellas to the way that Zi Yu’s long hair constantly fidgets in the breeze – its visuals don’t have the evocative potency of those in Zhang’s full-color epics. It might be an appropriate choice for the film’s mood and themes, but the de facto black-and-white look pales (pun intended) when compared to, say, the eye-popping autumnal forest duel in the director’s masterpiece, Hero.
That said, as a standalone and often inspired slice of lavish storytelling – one in which the double-crosses and fake-outs pile up quickly in the film's blood-drenched final stretch – Shadow has few flaws worth quibbling over. Zhang remains one of the living masters of the form, and even his “lesser” wuxia features are wildly extravagant and enthralling cinematic objects, if only because so few filmmakers are crafting anything quite so ambitious and distinctive. If Shadow feels a little chillier, darker, and more ruthless than the director’s international hits from the 2000s, it’s a shift that is unambiguously reflected in every inch of the film’s form. That kind of ground-up artistic diligence is a rare and marvelous thing indeed.