Zhang Yimou’s Shadow is driven by a kind of aesthetic perversity, as it sees the director of the ravishingly colorful Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers using a more restrained color palette. Emulating ink-wash painting, Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding often bathe Shadow in black and gray hues that are offset by ghostly whites. The film is mostly set beneath the shade of mountains, within a kingdom’s low-lit halls and in an elaborate crypt that only a sick military commander, Zi Yu (Deng Chao), seems to know about. It also always seems to be on the verge of raining in the film, which becomes significant to the narrative. Only rain can flush away the sins of patriarchy, though the sun refuses to shine even on the day of a violent crusade against corruption.
The mutedness of Shadow’s color scheme suggests a repression of emotion that’s intensified by another perversity: Zhang’s return to the wuxia film has almost no action for the first hour of its running time. Characters plot and brood and plot and brood some more, skillfully maintaining a nesting series of charades. When Zi Yu initially trains his doppelganger-like “shadow,” Jing Zhou (also Deng), their fighting is quickly curtailed. This lack of physical expression is complemented by the sort of tortured love story that’s common of Zhang’s cinema, as Jing Zhou is attracted to Zi Yu’s beautiful wife, who’s referred to simply as Madam (Sun Li) and who returns Jing Zhou’s affections, putting the potential lovers in peril.
This repression compels one to focus on the film’s subtle textures. The shifting of Madam’s robe against her body has an erotic quality, as does the lingering way that Jing Zhou and Madam caress one another’s hands while training. Silk screens form labyrinths within the already labyrinthine kingdom, yielding images that are dynamic less for their color than for their bold through lines and multi-faceted planes. And the ashy cinematography is beautiful, suggesting a form of black and white in which flesh hues are nevertheless accorded prominence. As in Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang slows our biorhythms in Shadow, so that we become hypnotized by minute details as harbingers of monumental shifts in power.
Set in ancient China and based on the legendary Three Kingdoms saga, Shadow concerns Zi Yu’s efforts to seize control from the weak-willed King Pei Liang (Zheng Kai), who refuses to take back territory that’s occupied by a general, Yang Cang (Hu Jun). A formidable warrior, Yang Cang devastatingly injured Zi Yu in a sword fight, though no one knows this but Zi Yu, Jing Zhou, and Madam. While Zi Yu is mad and on the verge of dying from the blow of Yang Cang’s sword, wasting away in a castle’s crypt, Jing Zhou pretends to be Zi Yu, brokering a rematch with Yang Cang against the Pei Liang’s wishes.
After a tense opening scene in which Pei Liang nearly outs Jing Zhou as an imposter, Zhang does surprisingly little with the existential quality of Jing Zhou’s predicament as Zi Yu’s slave, who must pretend to be his once powerful master. (In short, Jing Zhou is a professional victim of Stockholm syndrome.) A variation of this scenario was plumbed with unmooring intensity in Raise the Red Lantern, in which a concubine became a conspirator in her own enslavement, growing intoxicated with excelling even by the standards of a repressive regime. Shadow is much more of a popular entertainment, culminating with one of Zhang’s greatest set pieces: an irresistible gimmick that finds Jing Zhou needing to defeat Yang Cang with, well, yin.
Training on a huge tai chi board, Madam and Jing Zhou concoct a style of “feminine” fighting in which Yang Cang’s broadsword is to be rebuffed by an umbrella. Jing Zhou eventually confronts Yang Cang with an umbrella fashioned out of blades, a scary and gorgeous prop which Jing Zhou swings through the air with extraordinary grace, using the knives as well as water against Yang Cang. This confrontation becomes a violent dance, with the umbrella and the water bringing to mind a few of Gene Kelly’s moves in Singin’ in the Rain. Zhang viscerally unites the musical and action forms, then, underscoring their similarity as celebrations of movement. The filmmaker then produces one of the most insane and imaginative images in action cinema: of soldiers reclaiming the invaded city, sliding down a rain-slicked street on cocooned sleighs forged from the weaponized umbrellas. These soldiers indelibly suggest lethal armadillos, or perhaps an army of rampaging Sonic the hedgehogs.