After the limp 2017 film The Great Wall, the director Zhang Yimou was clearly looking to enact a return to form. With Shadow (2019), Zhang has done more than that: he’s created a martial-arts movie landmark, as strong in its performances as it is spectacularly novel in its violence.
From the opening shots, the film announces itself as something special. A text preamble situates the story line during a peaceful era in the “Three Kingdoms” era of Chinese history. But the world of Shadow is neither placid nor realistic in appearance. Zhang, the cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and the production designer Ma Kwong Wing have drained it of color. The characters have pale flesh tones, yes, but their surroundings are black and white and countless gradations of gray.
Pei’s vainglorious king (Zheng Kai) seems to have achieved an admirable goal: His policies have kept his territory out of war. But he is a cruel leader.
The king’s commander, suffering from a lingering disease, has made a slave of his peasant double and trained him to agitate against the king’s craven pacifism. The commander and his “shadow,” both played by Deng Chao, are locked in morbid codependency, and both are passionately in love with the same woman, the Commander’s wife (Sun Li). The deceptions are unending.
The convolutions of court intrigue are head-spinning enough. Once the action scenes begin, though, they bring with them a new level of exhilaration. Just when you believe the movie can’t get any crazier, it does, interrupting the gray world with shocks of dark red.
Review courtesy of The New York Times