It was almost halfway through Zhang Yimou’s career that he directed his first wuxia film, Hero, after distinguishing himself on the world stage with sumptuous, iconoclastic dramas like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, whose resonance and beauty transcended cultural boundaries. Shadow, his twenty-first feature, synthesizes the intimacy of that early work with the spectacle of what followed - a violent, sumptuous drama that proves Yimou’s tremendous skill and creativity remains as fertile as ever. A masterly combination of Shakespeare and the Shaw Brothers, Yimou’s latest is a reimagining of ancient Chinese history, a political potboiler, a tragic love story and often brutal action film all blended seamlessly into something incredibly powerful, and most remarkably, unlike audiences have ever seen from Yimou before.
Deng Chao (The Mermaid) plays Jing, a body double - a shadow - enlisted by the military Commander (also Chao) of the Pei Kingdom to appear in his stead before the increasingly unpredictable King Peiliang (Zheng Kai, The Great Wall). After the rigidly honorable Jing challenges foreign General Yang (Hu Jun) to a duel at the Commander’s secret request, threatening the tenuous peace struck between Peiliang and his rivals, he’s forced to step down from his position, further eroding confidence in the King’s already questionable judgment by his ministers and military leaders. But even as Jing persists in pursuing his showdown with the overconfident Yang, Peiliang inexplicably agrees to betroth his sister, Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), to Yang’s son Ping (Leo Wu) as a concubine, prompting Tian (Wang Qianyuan), another of the King’s leaders, to resign in disgust.
Preparing for his fight with Yang, Jing trains atop a tai chi symbol where he learns from Commander’s wife Madam (Sun Li, The Breakup Guru) not only how to defend himself using only an umbrella but fight back against his opponent with “a feminine touch.” But as a small band of outsiders led by Tian readies themselves to take on Yang’s forces - whether or not Jing succeeds against the General - the young “shadow” finds himself at a moral crossroads as he begins to question the subterfuge for which he has been preparing for his whole life, especially after realizing that his commitment to playing Commander in public has led to feelings for Madam.
For moviegoers who watched Zhang Yimou’s career since the days of his earliest Oscar-nominated films Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, the fifth wave Chinese iconoclast’s transition into wuxia films with Hero in 2002 seemed both like an overdue opportunity to celebrate one of the world’s greatest filmmakers and a seemingly jarring concession to commercial appetites. But like so many of its predecessors, the film was a masterpiece in its own right; even in the wake of Ang Lee’s transcendent, then-recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yimou turned action into poetry and helped restore art to martial arts. He continues this path in Shadow by effectively denying the instincts that distinguished his earlier action films, and work in general: instead of bold, saturated colors and balletic movement, Yimou mimics with his camera the monochromatic style of Chinese ink-wash art, and portrays the escalating action with graphic, brutal intensity.
Inside the Pei palace, the only discernible color is the skin tone of Peiliang, his ministers and military commanders, but even then they are shadowed by opaque screens that create countless echoes of the duality battling inside the characters as they attempt to understand, navigate, and prevail in a court where even the King employs deception. Later, as Jing faces his opponent and the machinery of their desperate Trojan horse-like plot to reclaim the city that yang’s forces occupy, the rain continues to fall, creating an unforgiving, graphic backdrop against which the blood of friend and foe alike splatters with a shocking ferocity.
But if the post-Crouching Tiger era was of wuxia filmmaking distinguished by a more painterly and impressionistic style (perhaps thanks to filmmakers like Lee, Yimou and Wong-Kar Wai who didn’t start in the genre or frequently departed from it during their careers), Shadow feels more authentically like a vintage Shaw Brothers movie - a possible descendant of John Woo’s Last Hurrah For Chivalry or even Chang Cheh’s Five Element Ninjas, films that start to finish oozed tragedy and melodrama amidst their displays of flying fists and feet. (That there’s a lot of bemused, malevolent laughing certainly helps evoke that earlier era of storytelling.) At the same time, Jing’s forbidden attraction to Madam evokes the exquisite and doomed hothouse romance of Ju Dou (not least of which because of Commander’s failing health and cruel, demanding tutelage), and the secret machinations of, well, just about every character within the King’s circle are distantly reminiscent of the social positioning in Raise the Red Lantern - a microcosm of maintaining position and maneuvering Peiliang’s idiosyncratic leadership in favor of a desired outcome some five or ten steps away.
Given the way the film straddles both Yimou’s dueling impulses and two very frequently separate sorts of Chinese cinema, not to mention its artfully subdued color palette and decidedly more visceral action scenes, Shadow’s beauty and its emotional power may not be as immediately evident as in his earlier work. But the film is itself a study in clashing emotional energies, and oppositional forces - diplomacy and deception, pride and humility, calculation and intuition - that Yimou navigates expertly. Moreover, the filmmaker’s sense of drama, imagery and choreography - always paired with meticulous plotting and deeply absorbing emotion - is as explicit, and vibrant, as ever. All of which makes Shadow a new if perhaps unexpected apotheosis in a career marked by one high point or breakthrough after another, and a reminder that after more than three decades as a director, Yimou still continues to effortlessly wield what may be his greatest talent - the ability to surprise his audience.