With Shadow, Zhang Yimou paints a vivid drama set in medieval China about a cowardly king and the political maneuvering of his court. “Paints” is the operative word here. Yimou has built a career on vivid visuals and opulent color palettes, and Shadow is no different. This time, however, Yimou throws the rainbow away, instead creating a world of blacks and whites that feel inky, deep, ripped straight from paper. It’s one of the most gorgeous films of the year and, with Yimou’s experienced hand, one of the most compelling action-dramas.
The Kingdom of Pei is suffering after the loss of an important city, now controlled by its rivals, the Kingdom of Yang. Their most brilliant military commander, Ziyu (Deng Chao), was seriously wounded in a one-on-one battle with the Yang commander, Yang Cang (Hu Jun).
The Pei King (Zheng Kai) is a coward and refuses to attack the city; he is unaware that, in fact, Ziyu was crippled in his battle with Yang Cang, and has raised a lookalike, Jingzhou (also Deng Chao), to serve as commander in his place. Jingzhou has been promised retirement from the double life if only he assists Ziyu with an intricate plot to defeat Yang Cang and then claim the Pei throne.
There’s more going on than even that plot summary can convey, including the integral role of Xiao Ai (Sun Li), Ziyu’s wife, whose emotions are torn between her broken husband and the healthy man living his life.
Yimou’s stark visuals complement the moral swing of the story, which is predominantly castle / court drama, with characters’ true intentions hidden in the shadows of their words and actions. Chao’s dual performance is electric, the kind of acting turn that requires a look at the credits to make absolutely sure it’s the same man playing both roles. There’s quite a lot of buildup, but when the wuxia action breaks out it’s dazzling; the Pei forces utilize a fighting style centered around razor-umbrellas and fluid movements that feels different than the average swordplay seen in most period dramas. There’s a lot of exposition about the Tai Chi symbol and the use of a fighting style that is feminine versus the masculine power of Yang Cang’s swordplay; I don’t know enough about martial arts to know where these ideas stem from, except to say that they’re visually gorgeous to watch onscreen.
Hero (2003) is Yimou’s most well-known wuxia here in the West, and Shadow plays like, well, the shadow of that movie. Where Hero used multiple color palettes to examine differing versions of the the truth Rashoman-style, Shadow uses its singular striking visual motif to tell a fairly straightforward story that offers as much of an interrogation of truth and how it’s weaponized to achieve victory. That’s also to say Shadow isn’t a story you’ve never seen before, but you’ve never seen it quite like this, and it feels like a tremendous return to form for Yimou.