It’s been nearly a year since Chinese legend Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow” rolled out on the festival circuit — first Venice, then Toronto, then Fantastic Fest — and finally regular movie audiences can experience one of the most visually breathtaking movies in recent memory.
Set in ancient China — the movie never specifies, but the press notes say the Third Century — the movie tells of two rival kingdoms, Yang and Pei, who formed an alliance to take control of the walled city of Jing. Before the pact was made, though, the commander of the Pei army (played by Deng Chao) was wounded severely, and is tended to by his wife, Madam (Sun Li, Deng’s real-life wife).
The commander returns to the court of the Pei king (Zheng Kai), declaring that he has challenged the Yang king (Jun Hu) to combat — so the Pei kingdom can retain control of the walled city from Yang’s army. The Pei king, though, is afraid of breaking the alliance, so he punishes the Pei commander by stripping him of his rank and armor.
What the Pei king doesn’t know is that the commander isn’t really the commander. He’s a body double, a “shadow” named Jing (also played by Deng), trained by the real commander, who lives underground and has aged because of his wound. Still, he’s a fearsome fighter, and sending his shadow to battle the Yang king is part of a devious plan to reclaim the city and exact revenge.
There’s added drama involving Madam, who is lady-in-waiting to the Pei king’s sister, the Princess (Guan Xiaotong). Madam is loyal to her ailing husband, but keeping up the charade of a happy marriage with Jing has taken an emotional toll — and she and Jing struggle to keep their feelings for each other in check.
Some of the intricate plot (in a script by Zhang and Li Wei) may get jumbled here and there, especially when the viewer’s brain is dealing with Zhang’s amazing visual scheme. The sets and costumes are all rendered in stark blacks, grays and whites, modeled on Chinese calligraphy and inspired by the symbol of yin and yang. The characters’ skin and the blood — of which there’s a lot — provides the onscreen color.
I haven’t mentioned yet that this is a martial-arts movie, though it takes awhile to get to the fight scenes, which have elements of the magical wuxia style. Once the battles begin, the spectacle is intense, with inventive weaponry and tightly choreographed action that’s both brutal and balletic.
With a team including cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and production designer Ma Kwong Wing, Zhang creates an eye-popping tale of loyalty, revenge and hidden motives. If you want to see a movie that stretches the visual and emotional boundaries of action films, “Shadow” is not to be missed.
Opened May 3 in select cities; opens Friday, July 26, at the Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for violence. Running time: 116 minutes: In Mandarin with subtitles.