At this time, when most action movies are nothing but action, Zhang Yimou employs extreme stylization in Shadow, his latest film made in the wuxia (martial arts) genre. The film’s abstract look — shot in color but making great use of monochromatic design — forces a viewer to concentrate on the themes in this ancient Chinese story.
Set in a.d. 220–280, a period of uneasy national equilibrium known as the Three Kingdoms era, Shadow dramatizes how Commander Yu of the Pei Kingdom projects the appearance of strength by concealing his war wounds; he hides from the public through the use of Jing, a compliant body double. Actor Deng Chao plays both roles convincingly; he embodies the idea of mirrors, echoes, and repetition that inform the film’s human and political drama.
The shadow (or decoy) ruse is supported by Yu’s wife, Madam (Sun Li), who is in love with both men. Yu’s sinister diplomatic strategy includes easing conflict with General Yang (Hu Jun) by marrying off his sister to Yang’s son, a breach of custom that rouses anger in suspicious young Captain Tian (Wang Qianyuan).
These divided loyalties and sexual tensions are replicated in the film’s extraordinary visual scheme. Cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, art director Horace Ma, and costumer Chen Minzheng craft the film to resemble ink-wash paintings. The palace and a fighting platform both feature audacious, large-scale tai chi patterns (known as yin and yang), a black-and-white circle whose curves with centering dots embody equally portioned male/female, wild/peaceful, negative/positive opposites. Shadow’s themes are distilled to visual essentials.
Zhang, himself a former cinematographer, paces each sequence for visual rhythm and as a study in visual effect (not the same thing as special effects). Interior-set palace intrigue, and exterior confrontations amid unending torrents of rain, result in a near-impressionist use of gray, steel, silver, smoke, coal. In terms of conveying cross-purpose personal deceptions and moody fate, Shadow plays like high-level film noir — an artistic extension of genre formula like Zhang’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, from 2009, which reimagined the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.
But, most remarkably, the film’s political conspiracy and moral fascination contain such depth of insight that Shadow achieves what deserves to be called visual Shakespeare. (Coriolanus and Measure for Measure immediately come to mind.) The characters’ shared secrets are acted out through private tricks and public hoaxes in scenes that achieve perfect visual expression of human passion: Yu’s sister (Guan Xiaotong) does a deceptive umbrella dance for male soldiers to demonstrate the advantage of “a feminine touch” when fighting. A zither challenge intended to expose Jing and Yu’s deceit is performed spectacularly, with arms spread and long hair alight from their condor-wing movements.
And the wuxia battle scenes are both majestic and brutal, as in Jing’s siege of General Yang’s stronghold through warriors using specially constructed steel umbrellas made of lethal blades to slide downhill. This startling image (red blood splashes the monochrome) updates Kurosawa’s great illusion of Shakespeare’s Birnam Wood in Throne of Blood (Macbeth).
More than mere action-movie excitation, Shadow dramatizes the complex motivations of historical figures whose desires and anxieties feel recognizably modern. Yu’s lament “I spent my life in power games and war but never tasted the beauty of the world” speaks to video-game inanity. Madam’s pragmatic “Some things are not right or wrong; what’s done is done” reflects contemporary amoral ruthlessness — and leads to a cliffhanger more breathtaking than anything in the Marvel Comics Universe.
Zhang’s creativity peaks when Yu outfoxes both Jing and Tian. There’s a brief but indelible image of his anguished face symbolically obscured behind layers of shade and within a mask — a soulful and psychological revelation. Shadow demonstrates the interpretation of history as a matter of artistic expression and emotional temperament more than political attitude or opinion. Art, as Zhang’s visual tone poem suggests, outlasts politics.