Zhang Yimou has lost favor of late with international audiences. His latest film, Shadow, manages to reclaim a bit of that luster.
Zhang’s wonderful productions starting with Red Sorghum showed a sumptuous kind of genre cinema, replete with stunning set-pieces and broadly engaging storylines. The gorgeous Raise the Red Lantern helped establish Gong Li as an international superstar, while House of Flying Daggers did the same for Zhang Ziyi. He then made a bunch of middling films (while astonishing the world with his Olympic ceremonies), and now returns with a highly stylized martial arts picture that reminds us once again of the power of his visual acumen.
A story of warriors and kings and the conflict between a trinity of unsettled allies, Shadow is told, appropriately enough, with a palette of contrasts. Costumes, sets and even landscapes alike are captured in various shades of gray, with only the skin tones suggesting that these images were captured with color photography. This is a story of the balance between good and evil, respect and betrayal, all emphasized through the iconic imagery of yin and yang.
When the kinetic action sequences and court intrigue work, the film is a lot of fun. It presents a surreal world where sharp-bladed umbrellas and “feminine” movements become particularly deadly. Unfortunately, these aspects are marred by an overly cautious pace that grinds away, resulting in a tone that veers towards boredom.
The visual wonder and moments of action make Shadow a film well worth seeing, but it unfortunately doesn’t fully live up to the better movies that made Zhang Yimou one of the most exciting filmmakers on the international stage. The visual master still has the chops to amaze, but his storytelling prowess doesn’t always match the beauty of his images.