Filmmakers often define their movies by making distinctive visual choices. Whether it’s Victor Fleming signaling The Wizard of Oz’s shift from Kansas to Oz by introducing bold Technicolor, or Zack Snyder reinventing the ancient world on a digital soundstage with 300, some films stand out because they introduce cinematic worlds that don’t look like anything that’s come before.
Add to that list Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, a historical fantasy-drama that reimagines the palace intrigue of China’s Three Kingdoms era as an almost entirely black-and-white world, where the swirl of the two colors reflects the moral grayness of the people who inhabit it. Zhang creates the look not by shooting in black and white, but by using sets and costumes drained of virtually all color. When other shades come into play, like skin tones and the desaturated greens of the nearby forest, their significance leaps off the screen. And as the violence mounts in the back half of the film, blood introduces yet another important color. What’s black and white and (eventually) red all over? This movie.
Deng Chao stars in a dual role as both the high-ranking military strategist Commander Ziyu (inspired, like the film’s other characters, by actual historic figures) and a doppelgänger named Jing, who’s trained since his poverty-born childhood to stand in for Ziyu. As the film opens, Jing’s services have never been more needed. Secretly ailing, Ziyu now works his political machinations from a hidden chamber, manipulating his ruler, King Peiliang (Zheng Kai), who appears to be committed to a humiliating alliance that leaves the city of Jingzhou under the control of a rival. (Jing takes his name from Jingzhou; Ziyu’s plans have been in the works for a long time.)
How committed is the King? Peiliang even seems okay with sending his sister Qingping (Guan Xiaotong) into service as a concubine for his rival’s son, just to maintain the status quo. But Ziyu is no less determined, even watching silently as his wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li) becomes drawn to his lookalike. He’s more concerned with spoiling his plans than preserving his marriage.
Shadow finds Zhang drawing on skills he’s accumulated across a long, varied career. As part of China’s crop of Fifth Generation filmmakers, he made his name in the late 1980s and 1990s with intense period dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, whose echoes of The Postman Always Rings Twice can be heard again here in the relationship between Jing and Xiao. But Zhang enjoyed his greatest commercial success in the ‘00s, via martial-arts spectacles like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Zhang most recently brought that approach to the controversial Chinese co-production The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and reimagining China’s Great Wall as a defense against vicious mythic beasts.
Zhang has never been content with working in one style for long, however, and in Shadow, he marries his talent for intimate drama with his eye for action. The shadow of the title undoubtedly refers to Jing and Ziyu, characters Deng plays so strikingly differently that it’s easy to forget he’s playing a dual role. But everyone here lives a double life. In one, they make life-and-death choices within the bounds of courtly decorum. In the other, away from regal surroundings, they have to live with the consequences of those choices, and sometimes desperately attempt to undo them. That gives an added charge to the movie’s remarkable action sequences, which come to dominate the film. They include both a one-on-one duel and a stealth raid on Jingzhou that both make the most creative use of umbrellas this side of Singin’ in the Rain. (Though Gene Kelly never had a rotating umbrella with flying blades.)
From the start, Zhang’s work has been tied to a shifting relationship with the Chinese government. Many of his early films ran afoul of government censors, which had fewer problems with the patriotic undertones of his action epics. By 2008, those undertones became overtones, with Zhang’s most widely seen work ever: the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Shadow, however, returns to a more jaundiced view. A plot that features more twists than a mishandled Slinky allows few characters to emerge as morally pure. They grow increasingly corrupt and cavalier with the lives of others as they accumulate power. Some of the film’s most memorable fights occur atop an arena-sized representation of yin and yang, but by the end, most of the darkness within most of the players seems to be out of balance with the light. The very act of ruling, it seems, steers those in charge down a dark path. (Coincidentally or not, Zhang’s latest film, One Second, set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, was unexpectedly withdrawn from the 2019 Berlin Film Festival at the last moment.)
Even without its distinctive look, Shadow would be memorable, an accomplished fusion of what Zhang does well, but the visuals take it to another plane. It becomes a kind of dark dream of the past, with unmistakable reflections of the present. It depicts a land where the powerful live in a world removed from those they control, until the moment those worlds collide. No human-created order lasts forever, even one cleverly crafted with clear lines delineating where black ends and white begins.
Shadow is currently playing in limited release with a gradual rollout. See the distributor’s site for cities where it’s playing.