An uneasy peace treaty has left a prized city in the hands of the Yang, humiliating their rivals, the Pei, whose weak and impulsive king (Zheng Kai) is reluctant to upset the status quo. Keen to restore the kingdom’s honour, a wounded Pei commander (Deng Chao) hatches an elaborate plan to reclaim the city, using a double in his place (also Chao).
With Shadow, director Zhang Yimou once again raises the visual bar by several notches. The film’s title is embodied by a rain-drenched monochrome aesthetic – a drastic shift from the dazzling colours of Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower, yet managing to be just as rich and textured.
On a spectrum with the tragic drama of Hero at one end and the loud, mindless action of The Great Wall at the other, Shadow is somewhere in the middle. The story follows the shifting dynamics between the king, the commander and his shadow (in a seamlessly edited double performance), and the commander’s wife (Sun Li). And while this is certainly intriguing it is clearly of secondary importance to the action which falls into “what crazy shit can we do?” territory.
As a result we get a Trojan horse sequence better than Troy, wacky Sino-steampunk tech and umbrellas used for just about everything except repelling the rain. The action is high-octane, breath-taking and somehow beautiful in spite of its Rambo level gore, allowing the film to escape the shadow of Zhang’s earlier films.