Film Review: A Stylish War Emerges from Zhang Yimou’s ‘Shadow’

Grabbing attention from the very first frame, there are few films as visually striking as Zhang Yimou’sShadow“. Though the director is known for more colorful spectacles such as “Hero” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” Zhang delivers a fresh surprise with the awe-inspiring greyscale palette of this latest effort. Coupled with a storyline rife with meaningful symbolism, “Shadow” is a stunning addition to the wuxia film canon.

Based on historical figures of Chinese lore, “Shadow” tells the tale of rival kingdoms. Having fought for decades, the Yan and the Pei kingdoms hope to broker a truce, as desired by the Pei King (Zheng Kai). But after the Pei military commander Yu (Deng Chao) is dealt a crippling defeat on the battlefield by the Yan, he hatches a plan to use a decoy soldier to lead the army in his place and restore pride and power to his people. As alliances are pledged between the kingdoms, this “shadow” figure becomes integral to this ancient game of thrones.

While Yu plots his machiavellian schemes, “Shadow” sets up its characters and their moves like a game of chess. Refusing to talk down to the audience, Wei Li and Yimou Zhang’s script masterminds an intricate web of maneuvers between the characters. Men and women alike are swept up in the palatial intrigue, as the leaders aim to get the upper hand via strategic betrothals, secret attacks and duels.

True to life, many of these actions require careful planning, which the film shows in painstaking detail. Setting in motion the kind of long game reserved for long form storytelling, the film’s dialogue-heavy first act admittedly requires the utmost attention and will test audiences’ patience. Indeed, those expecting an action-packed spectacle may be disappointed by the initial emphasis on the negotiations and politicking of the royal court.

But as the saying goes, patience is a virtue. And like a rewarding TV series, “Shadow” builds to an exhilarating finale. Inspired by the yin and yang philosophy, the eventual fight scenes provide the graceful dance-like movements typical of wuxia films. And with them, bursts of red are splattered on the film’s previously black-and-white canvas, enhancing the impact of every bloody slash by the sword and even more incredibly, a weaponized umbrella.

Indeed, the artistry on display is an amazing sight to behold. Staged against a detailed set and intricate costume design, which ingeniously gives the illusion of black-and-white cinematography, “Shadow” is simultaneously restrained and gloriously stylish. In a cinematic landscape burdened by cookie-cutter action films, “Shadow” offers a vital tonic to the genre.

“Shadow” opens in select theaters May 3.

GRADE: (★★★)