If you’ve ever seen one of director Zhang Yimou’s films, then you’re aware of his general aesthetic: beautiful colors, historical periods, and performances wherein feats of martial arts are as essential to communication as dialogue. His latest work, Shadow, contains only one exception, a limiting of colors to primarily black and white. While this does reduce the tone audiences expect, the monochrome nature of the images don’t impact the sense of grandeur, rather they act as a visual metaphor for the larger story at play, one of palace intrigue and revenge as individuals move through their lives, unaware of a hidden force quietly directing their lives to a violent end.
Set within the Three Kingdoms period of China, The King of Pei (Zheng Kai) wants nothing more than to maintain relative peace which exists with the head of former rival family Yan, General Yang (Hu Jun). The King sees it as his duty to protect his people, even if it means they never regain control of Jing City from the Yan, a place they once called home. Unbeknownst to the King, the commander he sent to fight for control so many years ago, General Yu, has grown ill and secretly replaced himself with a double (Deng Chao in both roles). With the double in place, the Commander Yu sets in motion a plan which will see the return of Jing City to the Pei by any means necessary.
Shadow might be Zhang’s most minimal work to date. The color scheme is monochromatic, the number of cast members can be counted on two hands, and the focus of the narrative is as razor sharp as the weapons at play. Considering Zhang and writer Li Wei are adapting Zhu Sujin’s Three Kingdoms: Jingzhou screenplay, itself material inspired by historical events which has already created a 95-episode 2010 television series, there’s an opportunity for Shadow to veer into the incredulous as it attempts to cram a sweeping epic into its 116-minute runtime. Gratefully, Zhang and Li only appear to borrow the time period and tension of the era to use as a foundation for their tale. The minimalism also extends to the wire-work audiences expect from wuxia films. Though the action sequences are stellar, including one hilariously amazing sequence involving umbrellas made of razors as defense armor, they’re also not as flashy. Keeping these sequences focused on the characters and not on the stunts may surprise audiences familiar with Zhang’s oeuvre, yet this works beautifully within the overall tone.
What will stand out first is the muted visual palette. Shunning vivid colors, the cast and sets are presented in various degrees of black and white. Many of the costumes are either bold presentations of one, or a gradient is applied. This is an obvious representation of the taijitu (the Yin-Yang diagram) which is also physically present in most scenes. For some, this may seem like an over-handed way to make it clear that Shadow is about duality, except it’s actually about balance, about harmony. Even when things appear peaceful in the land, there is a concurrent of discord running through Pei and Yan, which no amount of peace talks can assuage as long as the people themselves possess harmony. In the pictures attached to this review, readers can see teals, light blues, greens, and even the natural colors of skin, yet the majority of these are muted in the final picture. Zhang effectively turns the whole of the film into a living taijitu, making the concept of Yin and Yang, light and dark, the living and the shadow, physical constructs for the audience to examine. It also makes the results of violence that much more striking as the red from wounds stands out against the white.
Though visually impressive, the narrative begins less so. After a brief period of text to set the stage of events, the audience is thrown into the story. For the bulk, characters are introduced and relationships are established. Like any strong thriller, the audience is only shown what it needs to see, forcing the audience to make its own conclusions on motives and allegiances. Smartly, the central characters of Shadow are never diminished in the eyes of the audience. Each are presented as intelligent, wily, and capable of feats of violence when pushed. Take Commander, a general hidden in a cave, ailing and driven by glorious purpose. He’s the mastermind of the entire plan, yet when his wife Madam (Sun Li) makes a suggestion that might tip the scales, he doesn’t balk at her, but acknowledges her wisdom. Similarly, both main pawns in Yu’s plan, the King and General Yang, are each offered opportunities to present gestures of larger thinking. Neither man is merely military nor power-hungry fool, but is more wizened than others grant him. In offering moments like these for all the characters, Zhang and Li present complex characters struggling with maintaining their own harmony. None of this more so than in the double, the Shadow, known only as Jing. He is the central figure, yet not in control. He is a tool without agency and, within him, the audience is offered a strange helplessness that heroes in Zhang’s other films don’t possess. It’s not only refreshing, it puts the audience more on edge the closer to Jing’s purpose he becomes since his fate seems preordained and a shadow can only exist as long as the real one does. Impressively, the entire cast – especially Chao – put forth performances which make the audience ache as their individual fates are teased, drawing out more than one audible reaction as the conclusion draws ever closer.
What would a Zhang Yimou film be without a bit of controversy? The music which runs through the film is characteristic of the Three Kingdoms period in its use of the zither and pipa, yet composer Loudboy may not desire credit for the work. As beautiful as the music is, sometimes inserted into the film organically as when Yu and Madam play a duet, it seems that the music used in the film may be the work of Dong Yingda, a professor of film music at China’s Central Conservatory, which production company Le Chuang Entertainment contends only provided early draft compositions. At present, it doesn’t seem like a resolution has been made in the case nor does it seem to be affecting the film’s response with audiences, having already won 11 awards and 15 nominations since Shadow’s release in China September 30th, 2018.
Though it opens with a slow start, once the pieces are in place and the drama shifts to action, audiences will no doubt be locked in for one of the more inventive siege sequences in theaters this year. In its conclusion, Shadow reveals itself to be more than the sum of its parts. The chaos is merely a doorway to balance. If audiences are patient as Yu sets his plan into motion, the reward is an unexpectedly emotional payoff, one which reminds us that victory isn’t won by the strongest sword, but by the quickest mind and the will. While not as memorable as Hero, Shadow is a richly compelling tale brought to life through remarkable performances from the ensemble cast and dazzling direction; all worthy of a theater visit.
For information on where you can find Shadow when it hits U.S. theaters May 3rd, head to the official website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.