After the colossal creative disappointment that was The Great Wall, master filmmaker Zhang Yimou returns to the wuxia genre in his typically visually stunning fashion with Shadow. Here is another tale of duality, this time set during third century China between Commander Ziyu and his proxy body double Jingzhou. As the country descends to war and secret palace romances bloom, the expected role reversal between Ziyu and Jingzhou brings about a fateful final battle. Cue some really cool shots of fancy ancient umbrellas and some terrifying knives, and Shadow is a salve for a certain kind of action seldom served to western audiences in very recent years.
But what makes Shadow unique, as you might expect from the director, is its visual stamp. Inspired by traditional Japanese ink wash art, the film mirrors the “light and dark” yin yang of its concept with a palette of only black, white, and all the bleeding greys in between. Its images are as smooth and pristine as chilly stones, its rainsoaked moments making the staging pulse like a stirred inkwell. Once the eventual battles get underway, even the bloodshed hues toward a darker shade of murk.
While Shadow doesn’t break the narrative mold of its genre, the formal creative risk of its monochrome results in an intoxicating visual experience. Even without the vibrant colors of Yimou’s trademark, the director still crafts something vivid and with more visual range than the concept initially suggests.
Shadow has all the hallmarks of traditional wuxia films, particularly those that made Yimou a recognizable name stateside: hypervivid action in contrasting high speed and slow motion, a meditative mood, archetypal characters playing out to expected ends. The only straying from formula to be found are those chiaroscuro design elements. No matter how much they wow, the film does rely to heavily on their impact, making for a film that satisfies all of its goals but isn’t necessarily all that memorable outside of them.
But perhaps its biggest takeaway in its formal conception is the subtly transformative performance Deng Chao as both Commander Ziyu and the shadow Jingzhou. If the film exists most purely in the physical, his performance provides variance in his alternating characters. His two creations are mirrors, but each distinct in their physicalities – Ziyu is the hunk with Jingzhou as the gargoyle. The actor wrings each man to the crests of their idealism and enigmatism, suaveness and coarseness, courage and violence. Where the film offers the increasingly expected, he delivers texture.