Following his much-derided, epic monster movie “The Great Wall,” Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou returns to the masterful, imaginative form his audiences expect from the director of “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
With “Shadow’s” stunning exterior shots and lavish cinematography almost emptied of colors, the film’s feudal world looks drained of vitality from the setting’s unceasing rain. Puddles form and mix with blood, the barest traces of red quickly streaming away in the near-monochrome.
Precipitation falls heavily on everything, from a chat between father and son to an eye-popping battle sequence. The latter, a bizarre bit of lethal choreography, evokes the ancient yin-yang complement of male and female energies, but also gives us crazy umbrella weapons that stir thoughts of Batman nemesis the Penguin.
That aforementioned lack of verve is at the heart of the narrative, which Zhang has said is rooted in China’s traditional lore of “Three Kingdoms.” The story concerns an uneasy peace between a trio of kings, each with an interest in sharing control of a strategically important city, Jingzhou. One of the kingdoms has already been edged out, while another — Pei — suffers humiliation under a young, craven king (Zheng Kai) determined to keep the peace at whatever cost with an old foe dominating Jingzhou. He even offers his outraged princess sister (Guan Xiaotong) to the enemy in marriage.
Here, “Shadow’s” story takes a twist into Alexandre Dumas (“The Count of Monte Cristo”) territory. The king’s noble but royally ignored Commander Yu (Deng Chao) is on record for wanting war over Jingzhou. But the seemingly high-bearing Yu is not who he appears to be. He is in fact a lowborn slave, Jing, whose resemblance to the secretly broken-bodied, real Yu (also played by Deng Chao) — a near-madman living in hidden passages in Pei’s castle — has made Jing vital to Yu’s rebellious plans.
Shorn of his real identity and desperately yearning to leave, Jing is little more than a tormented marionette, in love with Yu’s sympathetic wife (Sun Li).
There’s a lot of exposition involved in making all this palace intrigue clear. But Zhang balances the talky sections with breathtaking outdoor scenes. Zhang’s trademark, preternaturally balletic fight sequences also do not disappoint.
It’s always good to see this side of Zhang’s work. “Shadow” will not soon be forgotten.
★★★½ “Shadow,” with Deng Chao, Zheng Kai, Guan Xiaotong, Sun Li. Directed by Zhang Yimou, from a screenplay by Zhang and Wei Li. 116 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Opens May 10 at Grand Illusion.