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From Shadow (courtesy Well Go USA)

In movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has proven to be one of the most visually dexterous directors of action working today. He’s a master of wuxia, stories about the exploits of supernaturally skilled martial artists. And Zhang’s versatility is such that this is but one facet of his career. He’s been equally at home directing small-budget romances and period pieces, big-budget war films, and the opening ceremony  2008 Olympics in Beijing. Disparate elements of all these genres — stylish action, grand spectacle, human drama — merge in his latest film, Shadow.

A loose adaptation of an episode from the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, the film evokes its period setting in a novel way. Save for the hues of human skin, spilled blood, and select muted outdoor scenes, it is entirely in black, white, and gray. And this is accomplished not through shooting in the format, or with a simple filter effect, but mainly with meticulous set and costume design. The result is that the characters look like they are living in the world of an ancient scroll, with inky smears worked into everything from the patterns on clothing to the marbling of stone. This heightened atmosphere sets the perfect tone for the story, which is rife with scheming, torqued emotion, and of course, incredible fight scenes.

From Shadow (courtesy Well Go USA)

In a time of war, the obnoxious, indolent King Peiliang (Zheng Kai) is content to let a vital city remain in the hands of the enemy. Commander Yu (Deng Chao), who has seemingly made a miraculous recovery since being seriously wounded in a battle the year before, plots to recapture the city behind the king’s back. Key to this plan is Yu’s “shadow,” Jing (also played by Deng), who bears an uncanny resemblance to him and has been trained from a young age to perfectly imitate his mannerisms. Yu has in fact been hobbled by his injury, and for some time Jing has been impersonating him in court. It is Jing who is set to duel an enemy general for control of the city — as long as the charade isn’t uncovered first. But of course, no story about doubles and elaborate masquerades can progress without identities beginning to blend, and Jing eventually questions his role as a “shadow” to another man, particularly as he feels drawn to Yu’s wife, Ai (Sun Li).

The movie’s black, white, and gray palette is thus not just a distinctive aesthetic, but also a reflection of the themes. The taijitu (the yin/yang symbol) is a prominent motif, not only inscribed on the floor that Yu and King practice fighting upon, but also suggested in details such as the film’s most ubiquitous weapon: an umbrella made of razors. The movie makes a deliberate contrast between the brightly lit court and the dark recesses of the caves where Jing, Yu, and Ai hold counsel, as well as the shadowy, grimy battlefields.

From Shadow (courtesy Well Go USA)

Traditionally, Yang is the realm of openness, considered “male.” Yin is “female,” and what is concealed. Shadow, as the name suggests, is about Yin seeking to triumph over Yang, with Yin interpreted as unorthodox thought. The movie doesn’t directly call out the sexism in the ancient thought, but it does subvert it, both through this reinterpretation and with female characters who rebel against the roles assigned to them. The razor umbrellas also embody this idea; their wielders use them to turn defense into offense, channeling the overt aggression of stronger foes and turning it against them. And just as introducing black to white gets you gray, the upending of traditional thought throws multiple characters into turmoil. Jing and Yu’s struggles over their respective identities demonstrate this. If Jing is the one everyone “knows” as Yu, and he can think and act perfectly as him, then who’s to say he’s not really Yu?

In a landscape of action blockbusters that struggle both to create good action and to say anything meaningful, it’s a blessing to get a movie like Shadow, which delivers thrilling action, has a lot on its mind, and can convey its ideas through the actors and their framing rather than getting too talky. The movie also hits the rare cinematic achievement of creating a wholly unique look, to the point where almost any out-of-context frame can be identified as coming from it. Zhang continues to stake new ground for action filmmaking.

From Shadow (courtesy Well Go USA)

Shadow is in select theaters May 3.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He is studying in the masters program at Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany. You can find his all his links and public profiles here.