Fantasia 2019: “Shadow” is Zhang Yimou’s Monochrome Wuxia Epic

Shadow Deng Chao in Zhang Yimou's "Shadow." (Well Go USA)

The director of House of Flying Daggers and Hero drains the color from a Shakespearean take of double identities to crisply symbolic effect.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)

It seems almost criminal to compare Shadow to Zhang Yimou‘s most well-known wuxia films prior to this – Hero and House of Flying Daggers, both of which were released in American in 2004. It’s a wholly different beast, literally and metaphorically drained of color; where those films were punctuated by bursts of stylized hues of red and green to emphasize the fairy-tale nature of those stories, Shadow lives in a desaturated realm of blacks and whites. Yet this grimmer palette carries a thematic weight all its own: Yimou’s latest courtly epic is a tale of opposites, of yin and yang, and the shades of gray that exist in between.

Two kingdoms, Yan and Pei, have been warring for generations over control of the walled city of Jian; currently, Yan controls the city, with the ineffectual king of Pei (Zheng Kai) maintaining a fragile alliance to maintain the piece against the warlike wishes of his Commander, Ziyu (Deng Chao), who recently lost a duel with Yan’s own general (Hu Jun) and has declared a one-on-one rematch for control of the city.

But what the king doesn’t realize is that Ziyu is a double; in true Prince and the Pauper fashion, Ziyu is being impersonated by a former street urchin named Jingzhou (also Chao), groomed since childhood to impersonate Ziyu should anything befall him. You see, Ziyu is slowly dying of a mortal wound sustained during that lost battle, now a weakened shell of his former self hiding in a cave underneath the palace. Together with his wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li), they train Jingzhou to win the battle and take the city in his place. But as Jingzhou insinuates himself even further into Ziyu’s life, the lines between the two people become even more blurred — while Ziyu has even more ambitious plans beyond even Jingzhou’s knowledge.

What strikes the viewer in the first minutes of Shadow — apart from the incessant expository dialogue, a necessary evil to explain the various court dynamics and character relationships at play — is Zhao Xiaoding’s unbelievably crisp, monochromatic cinematography. It’s not a black-and-white film, per se, but its characters exist in a black-and-white world: palaces are decored with black wood and white paper walls, decked out in white robes against black-painted zithers, all intended to evoke the aesthetic of Chinese calligraphy. The intricate swoops and curves of calligraphy are referenced everywhere, from the writing on the paper walls of the palace to the wavy brushstrokes of every yin-yang symbol found on the floors of various dueling platforms. Like many of Yimou’s wuxia films, this is a picture deeply concerned with finding aesthetic beauty among the bloodshed.

Like many of Yimou’s wuxia films, this is a picture deeply concerned with finding aesthetic beauty among the bloodshed.

And then there’s the action, intricately captured with that quintessentially ornate Zhang Yimou style. The Yan army is outfitted with heavily-designed black armor, while the Pei soldiers fight with ornate bladed umbrellas that make for some truly inventive fighting — soldiers spin down angled streets on them to avoid arrow attacks, or fling blades at enemies from afar. Unlike his previous wuxia films, the wirework is sparing here, used beautifully to render the more feminine, yin-like fighting style of Jingzhou a grander sense of grace.

Over the course of Shadow‘s two hours, the broad, operatic storytelling shifts about from act to act, moving from languid exposition in act one to thrilling action in act two, to a slower third act dominated by some of Yimou’s more formulaic moments (last-minute betrayals, assertions of identity). And yet, it’s hard to argue against the way Yimou makes expert use of an intricately-formed visual landscape to explore more internal concerns, like the value of femininity in such an ego-driven male environment, or the struggle to overcome our own ‘shadow’ selves. Just as Ziyu, curled up in his cave scheming instead of fighting, is a shadow of his former self, so too does his own ‘shadow’ yearn to stand in the light.

Like his other classics, Yimou’s Shadow is a film of rich textures, from the splatter of rain against a cobblestone street to the fingerprint-thin ripples of Ziyu’s cave walls. It traffics in sensation and visual more than emotional nuance, a big, bold courtly drama filled with melodramatic intrigue. In this respect, it’s pretty old-school, and yet it serves as one of the master’s best, even if its stature among his most famous works might make it languish in obscurity.

Shadow Trailer:

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