Zhang Yimou is among the world’s most masterful visual artists, beginning his career with vivid, colorful period pieces and eventually mixing in gracefully choreographed combat sequences; Hero and House of Flying Daggers are among the best action films from last decade. Shadow reverses his usual tendencies in a fitting way; the color is drained by limiting its set and costume design to shades of black and white while still being filmed in color.
This is a film of contrasts; in its color scheme, in its story, even in its structure. Everything about this movie’s design is very deliberate; the question isn’t whether it achieves its artistic goals, but whether those goals actually add up to something beyond their concept.
The flaw of this film’s affinity for stark contrasts is that it’s a story divided in two halves; political intrigue slowly leads into stunning combat. By dividing itself down the middle, the first half begins to feel like a narrative dump. The best slow films usually support themselves with stunning cinematography, and Shadow seems like it would have much to offer with such strong visual design – but because these sets are so artificial, not much is added by lingering on the image.
There are a few moments of training in this first half, but it naturally carries little stake. Much of it is people simply talking, setting up conflict that will later be resolved. Perhaps if all this didn’t feel like mere set-up for the true meat of the film, it would be more entertaining in its own right. It’s an exposed backbone to the full picture.
Thankfully, halfway through Shadow, the action finally kicks off and Zhang gifts us with a film that reminds us why he captured our attention all those years ago. Stark contrast is carried into the combat style, protagonist Jingzhou bringing an umbrella to a sabre fight in a battle of feminine grace versus blunt masculine force. As absurd as this sounds, the final result is surprisingly cool; this whole back half is loaded with stunning sequences exploring what these weaponized metal umbrellas can do.
Every element of the design has pay off here; the contrast of colors is highlighted by the sudden addition of spilled blood, while the heavy set-up grants these fights some serious stakes. The brutality of this film actually caught me off guard; this is a story of vengeance and backstabbing, and the final sequence is legitimately difficult to sit through.
As such, I almost want to say that brutally slow build-up is worth it; but there are other slow openings that I adore. The problem isn’t that Shadow‘s opening is slow, but that it’s tedious. The image itself is more engaging than how it’s captured here, and everything about its design works better in motion. It could have cut down quite a bit of time and only gained from doing so.
Shadow is a stunning action film with an unfortunate amount of build-up, but the final payoff is worth the tedium, especially when it moves into the chaos of its final act. Few films are as simultaneously graceful and horrific. Though it might not reach the heights of Zhang Yimou’s classics, Shadow is still a more evocative action film than most.
4 Stars Out of 5