Director Zhang Yimou made his biggest splash onto American soil back in 2004 when his two visually stunning wuxia films were released, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Since then, Zhang has struggled to find another global hit. His new film harkens back to those films and will hopefully find an audience stateside. Shadow deserves it.
At the core of Shadow is court intrigue. This weighs down the first hour of the film but do stick with it as the film explodes with creativity and jaw-dropping visuals in its second half. The plot begins with the King of Pei (Zhang Kai) a smug monarch who holds a grudge against a neighboring city that he used to have control over. That city is no in the hands of a general named Yang (Hu Jun). He won it in a duel but the king wants it back. The king offers up his sister Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong) as a wife to Yang in exchange for the city. The plan gets complicated when the king's Commander (Deng Chao) returns from a duel with Yang. The Commander is actually an imposter named Jing who has been trained from childhood to step in as the Commander if something should go wrong. It has as in the aforementioned duel, the Commander has been greatly wounded. The only one who knows the difference is the Commander's wife (Sun Li).
All of this exposition in the front half of the film is a little bit much. While the story is complicated, it is engaging but the pace of the first hour doesn't telegraph how intense and incredible the second half is. The visual aesthetics are impressive early on, full of black and white sets and costumes that give the film a manga feel at times. However, in the film's battle-ridden second half, Zhang pulls out all of his moves. The splendor of seeing an army brandishing razor-edged umbrellas cannot be understated. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding captures the intense and creative action with a clear sense of space. We always understand the relationship between characters even as they whirl around in battle. This is where the film's slow setup pays off. We care about what happens, making the action sequences meaningful.
Action cinema can struggle to feel like it is doing something new in the choreography and staging of scenes. Shadow excels here, bringing lots of new ideas to the genre. The action is so imaginative that it will be forever etched into any fan of the genre's mind. Cutting through the black and white aesthetic are splashed of blood and gore. They remind us that fighting like this has consequences. After years of superheroes battling each other with hardly a scratch on them, it is refreshing to see how lethal a blade can be.
Shadow is a must for action fans. You may feel the drag of the setup but the payoff is more than worth it. The technical achievements in the film align with the story's themes in striking ways, such as the use of Yin and Yang. All and all, Shadow is big-screen spectacle that you should not miss.