After more than a decade Chinese master Zhang Yimou returns to the wuxia genre in which he excelled with “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” and scores a third triumph. “Shadow” is a luminously gorgeous visual experience, and though parts of it are talky and theatrical, at its best it’s a remarkable accomplishment.
The narrative, loosely based on a part of the Three Kingdoms epic. is one of court intrigue in the third century A.D.. The fortress city of Jingzhou has been lost to General Yang (Hu Jun) as the result of a one-on-one combat with Commander Yu (Deng Chao) of the Kingdom of Pei. Yu was so terribly wounded in the fight that back home he retreated into seclusion in caverns hidden in the palace complex.
But his machinations did not cease; he has replaced himself at court with a double, Jing (also played by Deng Chao), whom he continues to train in martial combat. Only Yu’s wife Xiao (Sun Li) is complicit in the substitution.
All of this is revealed gradually: the film begins with Jing, in the guise of Yu, announcing to King Peiliang (Zheng Kai) that he has challenged Yang to a rematch to decide the city’s fate. The monarch, ostensibly a cowardly, frightened young man, is aghast: his policy has been to maintain an alliance with the seemingly invincible general. So he sends his chief minister Lu Yan (Wang Jingchun) to Jingzhou to propose the marriage of his beautiful but independent-minded sister Quingping (Guan Xiaotong) to Yang’s son Ping (Leo Wu). When the general responds by suggesting that she become his son’s concubine instead, it infuriates her.
Meanwhile the real Yu has been plotting with Captain Tian (Wang Qianyuan), who sees his king’s policies as misguided, to stage a backdoor assault on Jingzhou while the fight between Jing/Yu and Yang serves as a distraction. The dangerous assault will, it’s been decided at Xiao’s suggestion, utilize a new combat technique combining masculine and feminine elements, in which the soldiers will employ umbrellas outfitted with iron blades, which require some decidedly womanly moves when wielded but, as is shown in one especially astonishing scene, can also be used as virtual sleds to speed down a slick mountain street.
That sequence is physically possible, however improbable it appears in narrative terms, because of one of the film’s constants: the rain, which is unremitting, and gives everything a sheen. The visual side of “Shadow” is almost incredibly beautiful: unlike many of Zhang’s films—“Hero” a prime example—it uses bright colors barely at all, instead mimicking, in shimmering shades of whites, blacks and grays, traditional Chinese ink-and-brush painting. Ma Kwong Wing’s production design also makes ample use of the yin-yang symbol which, for example, fills the floor of the cavern where Yu trains Jing, as well as that of the bamboo tower high above a gorge on which Jing and Yang do battle. (The masculine-feminine motif is emphasized in the simultaneous one-on-one fight between Ping and Quingping.) Of equal symbolic significance is another motif—the zither duets of Yu and Xiao, which possess both a collaborative and an adversarial aspect.
Complementing the ravishing work of Ma Kwong Wing are the flamboyant costumes of Chen Minzheng, especially the court gowns that swirl luminously in the glistening widescreen cinematography of Zhao Xiaoding. When one combines all the technical contribution with Zhang’s operatic direction (complemented by the superb action choreography of Dee Dee, to which Zhou Xiaolin’s editing adds panache), the result is a film that can take one’s breath away.
In narrative terms, one must admit, “Shadow” will require some effort for western audiences, who are unlikely to be aware of the tale from the Three Kingdoms epic. The opening sequences, which take place before the Yu/Zing imposture is revealed, may confuse viewers, especially when it comes to the reluctance of “Yu” and Xiao to perform their music at the king’s request—something explained only later on. They may also be bewildered by the twists in the final act, in which characters who had seem fixed now become very different people.
The highly theatrical ambience naturally necessities a broad performance style from the cast. That’s especially evident in the dual work of Deng, whose subdued turn as Jing is in radical contrast to his hysterical one as Yu. He’s almost outdone in that respect by Zheng, whose king is wildly emotional. The other actors are less ostentatiously histrionic, but could hardly be called subtle; that’s not the approach Zhang has taken to the material.
Zhang’s treatment of the ancient Chinese legend may be narratively complicated and unbelievably florid, but it’s a completely ravishing visual experience.