★★★ / ★★★★
Zhang Yimou crafts yet another martial arts film set in ancient China but instead of delivering pavonine costumes, wild cosmetics, and luscious set decor as in “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” we feast our eyes on black, white, and grey with the occasional spatter of color—like when a mortally wounded drips blood on cobblestones as it rains or when two people who share forbidden passion find themselves alone in a room. Breathtaking from the first second to the last, it invites the viewer into a world of political chess; obsessions of those with power, those without, and others caught in the maelstrom; double- and triple-crosses obvious and genuinely surprising; and fight choreographies so elegant, they resemble a dance rather than the expected duel of weapons.
Boiled down to its essence, “Shadow” tells the story of a man named Jingzhou (Deng Chao) who is tasked by Commander Ziyu (also played by Deng), a servant of the kingdom of Pei, to function as a decoy, a double, due to severe injuries the commander sustained from his duel with the formidable Yang Cang (Hu Jun), keeper of the city that three kingdoms wish to have for themselves. Aside from the commander and his wife (Sun Li), no one knows of Jingzhou’s existence. This is a tale about the shadow stepping out of its source and perhaps forging a life of his own. So many pieces are on the move that it becomes a challenge to keep this in mind—a compliment because pieces themselves are worthy of our attention.
Consider the look of the picture. The lack of color denotes stagnancy, depression, perhaps even oppression. In the middle of it is King Peiliang (Zheng Kai), more a worm than a man due to his cowardice. He is a symbol of status quo; he believes that as long as there is peace—even if only on the surface-level—all is good and it must be maintained. Those in power from other kingdoms know they can insult him—and they do. He’s so spineless that he might as well say, “Thank you” after being ridiculed followed by begging for seconds. He not only licks the boot; he eats it. Even the yes men whom the king is surrounded by occasionally hint at the fact that the people of Pei wish to fight back and claim the city for their kingdom. Still, Peiliang remains resolute. We cringe at the sight and sound of this poor excuse of a leader. Commander Ziyu wants him out.
And so the battles begin and true motivations are revealed behind curious actions. Jingzhou is trained by Commander Ziyu to defeat Yang Cang. Nothing seems to work… until Xiao Ai, Ziyu’s wife, proposes an alternative way of battling. This moment opens up the picture for astonishing battle sequences during rainfall. Slow motion of athletic bodies, deadly weapons, puddles and raindrops is visual poetry. I could not help but think how much planning, time, and effort it took to create just one of these terrific fight scenes. It must be seen to be believed.
Naturally, the city that everyone wants must be covered in corpses. There is a scene involving umbrellas made of knives being used as shields so that the outnumbered attackers can make their way down a road with minimal casualties. It is so joyously creative that it looks like a live action sequence of some wacky Japanese anime. Yet at the same time, the way these metallic umbrellas are designed combined with the execution of the action scene, not for one second does the sequence come across laughable or cartoonish. It’s astonishing. But this is only one scene. I have not even touched upon the most badass moment in the movie. It requires no visual effects. Just two people dueling to the death. No, I’m not referring to the face-off between the feared Yang Cang and the shadow.
“Shadow” deserves an enthusiastic recommendation. But there is one element that I think prevents it from becoming a great action film: the occasionally theatrical dialogue, especially toward the end when people are supposed to be dying but they find time to deliver drawn-out speeches. Sometimes not having the chance to express whatever needs to be said can be more compelling because it leaves room for us to imagine, infer, and consider. It had the chance to end on a stronger note but didn’t. Still, I imagine this shortcoming being overlooked by most.