Action/drama, not rated, 116 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
When you’ve got a near-monochromatic color palette, as in director Yimou Zhang’s phenomenal war epic Shadow, it makes it all the more dramatic when the bright red blood starts to flow. With Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Hero (2002), and House of Flying Daggers (2004) under his belt, Zhang is no stranger to crafting a convincing, thoroughly gorgeous historical epic. Nor is he a stranger to wuxia, that particular subgenre of martial-arts film set in China’s medieval past.
In Shadow, he maintains a singular ability to elevate setting, mood, and narrative into an art form. It’s an enthralling spectacle set in China’s Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) between the Han and Jin dynasties.
The story concerns a military commander and his look-alike (Chao Deng in a dual role) in the Kingdom of Pei. When an uneasy alliance between two of the three kingdoms is fractured, the commander sees an opportunity to recapture a city that was ceded to a former enemy. But since he has been grievously wounded in a previous battle — a fact he keeps from everyone except his wife (Li Sun) — he sends his double, the eponymous “shadow,” in his place, risking his position as a high-ranking officer in the king’s court.
It’s just the sort of setup that’s ripe for byzantine court intrigue and rife with the potential for epic betrayals. Add in plenty of rousing, rain-drenched battle sequences, jaw-dropping stunt work, dance-like fight choreography, some rather far-fetched but wildly conceived weapons (including one that looks like an umbrella made of daggers, which proves useful for more than just slicing and dicing), and it’s one hell of a fun ride.
But Shadow takes on more cosmic proportions with a theme inspired by the concept of yin and yang, which holds that all things exist as inseparable opposites. The concept is reflected in the stark, desaturated colors of Xiaoding Zhao’s stunning cinematography, which resembles the tonal range of a Chinese ink-brush painting. There are no good and bad guys, only shades of grey. The theme is asserted most emphatically in a hand-to-hand combat sequence that plays out on a massive yin-yang symbol set into a subterranean floor.
Amid the visual spectacle, Zhang finds time to give us plenty of character development, too, especially in the film’s first half. He peoples the story with figures blinded by anger, ambition, and excessive pride, and one — the shadow — who was reared and trained in secret from a young age, with no real identity of his own. Good stuff.