In 1987, Zhang Yimou debuted with the drama Red Sorghum, and instantly became China's preeminent – and often persecuted – auteur. 32 years and 20 feature films later, it's hard to say where his career is going. On the one hand, he's been helming big historical epics with failed crossover appeal (The Flowers of War, The Great Wall). On the other, he still toils away on small projects, from the sublime (Coming Home, a modest throwback to his 1990s dramas, Gong Li and all) to the ridiculous (the enervating Blood Simple remake A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop). His latest project, Shadow, lands somewhere in between.
What's immediately remarkable about Shadow is Zhang's color palette, so muted that you feel like you're watching a black and white film. With its gorgeous, monochromatic costumes and sets, Shadow positions itself as a feast for the eyes, only to spend much of the first half of its two-hour runtime bogged down in talky interior scenes. However, the patient viewer will be rewarded by a third act that is as gory as it is dazzling.
Set in some ancient era – a Chinese national might be able to pinpoint the century, but not me – Shadow depicts a sort of cold war between two rival kingdoms, who have long fought over an apparently insignificant city. They have reached a detente, but political machinations are edging the two towards physical battle once again.
At the heart of this intrigue is an arrogant young king (Zheng Kai, overacting); a general (Deng Chao) recovering from an ill-advised duel with the other kingdom's greatest warrior; and the general's "shadow" (Deng again), a younger man who, rather preposterously, was raised in secrecy to serve as the general's double, presumably for this exact unique situation. In short, the real general is hiding out and going mad, while his "shadow" successfully poses as the real general before the royal court. Why all this subterfuge, and to what end? I'm not completely sure, to be honest, but it gives Deng the opportunity to perform two juicy roles, and Zhang and his crew deliver some convincing split-screen work.
Anyway, all that black and white eventually turns red all over as the city is invaded, battles erupt (involving umbrellas made from humongous knives!), and characters start dying left and right.
Is Shadow a good movie? Well, it isn't bad. But it's often muddled, and it doesn't have a whole lot to say. A lot of it is stagy; the rest is a bloodbath. Although the invasion scenes are stunningly shot, and there some thrilling one-on-one fights, the whole thing didn't amount to much for me. It sure doesn't hold a candle to Zhang's first wuxia (martial arts fantasy), the jaw-dropping Hero, but for fans of the genre, you could do worse.