Fifteen years ago, Zhang Yimou made a martial-arts epic called Hero, in which every fight scene seemed to be swathed in its own definitive color. He goes with a similar theme in Shadow. Everything in this movie is white, black, or some shade of gray — clothes, silk screens, weapons, and especially the weather. Even on the frequent occasions when blood spurts out from someone who’s been cut with a sword or a knife, the red looks muted. You wonder why Zhang didn’t just go whole hog and film this in black-and-white. Zhang’s string of swordfighting movies quickly yielded diminishing returns with House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, but this film has a distinctive look on its side and a few other things.
The story is set in feudal China, where the Yang and Pei clans have come to a truce in their war over Jing City, with the Yangs in control. The commander of the Pei forces (played by a bearded Deng Chao) was mortally wounded in the recent war, but as he lies dying in a hideout tended by his wife (Sun Li), he has an ace up his sleeve: an orphaned servant spitefully named Jing (played by a clean-shaven Deng) who happens to look just like him. On his master’s orders, Jing disguises himself as the commander and challenges his Yang counterpart (Hu Jun) to single combat for control of the city that he was named after. His prize for surviving the fight will be a reunion with his mother, who lives in the city and whom he hasn’t seen in decades, though Jing is smart enough to know that the timing of her surfacing is awfully convenient.
Martial-arts fans will need some patience, since the first fight scene doesn’t come until half an hour into this 115-minute film. In the meantime, if you have a Game of Thrones-like appetite for court intrigue, the Pei king (Ryan Zheng, billed here as Zheng Kai) is a fun character, a monarch who seems to spend all his time drinking and writing giant calligraphic odes to peace but is, in fact, much smarter and more ruthless than he lets on. His desire to keep peace with the Yangs leads him to happily pimp out his own sister (Guan Xiaotong) to them. The princess is less than pleased with the arrangement.
The action pays off midway through when the commander’s wife uses her umbrella as a shield in a training session, blocking blows from swords. This leads to a dazzling set piece when Jing pulls an umbrella made of knives in the duel with the Yang commander, where it’s not only a shield but also a device to throw blades at the enemy. While this is happening, a group of trained prison convicts armed with more umbrellas use them to skid down a rain-soaked street while Yang archers fire ineffectively at them. On top of that, the commander and his wife play some fierce duets on the guzheng (Chinese zither) during the fights. If Zhang’s controversial The Great Wall showed him in deep decline (and willing to pander to English-speaking audiences), Shadow shows that he still has a few moves left.
Starring Deng Chao and Zheng Kai. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Zhang Yimou and Li Wei. Not rated.