For many, Yimou Zhang is the face of Chinese cinema. He's had a long and prosperous career that stretches well beyond the world of film. Even though he's now in his fourth decade of making films he shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary even, Shadow [Ying] is Zhang's latest baby and once again it sets a new standard for others to follow. It's an almost impossible feat for a man like Zhang, most directors can only aspire to make one such a film once, but here we are. Shadow is a benchmark for all films that will follow in its footsteps.
Zhang is known to be a master of color. Films like Red Sorghum and Ju Dou conquered the world with their bright reds, while Hero and House of Flying Daggers helped to breathe new life into the martial arts genre through their boldly colorful cinematography. It's an interesting twist then that Zhang pulls a reverse Kitano (who directed Dolls to prove he in fact could do color) and made a film that is primarily black and white, drawing inspiration from ancient Chinese ink wash paintings and the taijitu (the good old yin and yang symbol). A risky move, but when Zhang applies himself to something he usually delivers and that's the very least you could say of Shadow.
While Shadow is an absolute visual trip, the narrative is more traditional and somewhat reminiscent of Zhang's own Hero. It's a historic war drama that largely unfolds inside the king's castle. The focus lies on strategy, deceit and power struggles, less on the actual combat. There are still a couple of elongated action sequences of course, but if you're hoping for a full-blown action spectacle than Shadow will disappoint. If on the other hand you like the more micro-strategic and character-driven war epics that reared their heads in China during the late '00s you'll find plenty to like here.
Central to the story lies the brittle peace treaty that exists between the Kingdome of Pei and the city of Jing, which is about to be blown to pieces after a Pei commander pays the city a visit. What the king of Pei doesn't know is that the commander hired a "shadow", a body double that takes his place in case something should happen to him. While the king tries to defuse the situation, the commander's shadow is preparing for a showdown between him and the general of Jing, a duel that will determine the outcome of the political scuffle.
On a visual level, Shadow is absurdly beautiful. People have been making black and white cinema since the very moment cinema was born, but never did I see it done in such a way as here. To want to reinvent black and white cinema is crazy, but Zhang actually pulled it off. For one, it doesn't go for muddled greys or stark, grainy contrasts, instead it finds a sweet spot that makes the contrast look crisp and clean while still giving the many gradient greys some room to play. It's also not true black and white either, with some colors remaining, although extremely desaturated. The trick is that these slivers of color actually seem to enhance the black and white effect even further. It simply has to be seen to be believed.
The soundtrack, per usual, is more traditional in nature. That said, Zhang gives it a prominent place in his film and even dedicates a few scenes to the musical pieces. The music is played on traditional Chinese instruments (zithers and pipas), which does give the film a distinct feel. It's a more than solid soundtrack and it's definitely an asset to the film, even so China keeps reaching back to these classic sounds and compositions. It would be nice to see them play around with more modern sounds for a change, though truth be told Shadow probably wouldn't have been the best film to experiment with that. Can't really fault Zhang for his choice here, but it is becoming a flaw in Chinese cinema that needs to be addressed at some point or another.
The cast is solid, but not too exceptional. Apart from Ryan Zheng maybe, who is clearly enjoying the devious side of his character (the king of Pei). While he lays it on quite thick, he gets away with it through sheer enthusiasm. There are no weak elements or bad performances, at the same time I don't think many actors will be remembered for their parts here. The material they had to work with doesn't really call for stand-out performances either, since the narrative and the characters are all very in line with the expectations of the genre.
If you weren't charmed by Zhang's earlier martial arts epics then Shadow probably isn't going to change your mind. The genre is a bit past its prime and unless you can let yourself be swayed by Zhang's overpowering visual prowess the film doesn't have much on offer you haven't seen elsewhere. That's not to say that the plot is uneventful or badly structured, but it does feel a bit tried and tested. As a fan of genre cinema it's something I can brush off very easily, but I feel it will probably hurt the commercial appeal of the film in the West (which is currently ignoring classic Chinese action cinema altogether).
That said, as a fan of style over substance cinema, this is a real treat. Shadow's eye-popping visuals amaze from start to finish and with all the other elements adequately covered there are plenty of stand-out scenes that have the potential to become pillars of the genre. Zhang reinvented black and white cinematography and plastered it over a fun and commendable story. The result is lush Chinese blockbuster material at its best, a film that is mostly highs and no lows. It's a somewhat surprising reminder that Yimou Zhang still has some life left in him as a director.