What’s black and white and red all over? Zhang Yimou’s latest martial arts epic “Shadow,” which played Saturday afternoon in Shannon Hall as part of the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival.
Yimou used vibrant colors so beautifully in previous martial arts film “House of Flying Daggers,” but he largely puts the spectrum aside for “Shadow.” Though shot in color, the sets, costumes and props are almost entirely black, white or some shade of gray in between. No purples, yellows, greens or blues. The exceptions are the pink of human skin and the red of spilled blood. Of which, by the end of the movie, there is a whole lot.
“Shadow” is a tale of two kingdoms in third-century A.D. China that are tussling over a disputed region that the smaller kingdom had to relinquish to the larger one in a treaty. The king of the smaller Pei kingdom (Ryan Zheng) is a cowardly tyrant who ignores the advice of his commander (Deng Chao) to try and seize the region back by force.
The black and white motif of “Shadow” is reminiscent of a chess game, and the first half of the film moves at a rather stately pace as the pieces move into position. Each of the characters has secrets and hidden agendas — the commander has a secret that is so complicated I’m not going to reveal it, both because I don’t want to spoil it and because I cannot figure out how to put it into words.
The yin yang symbol is also black and white, and that symbol, and the balance it represents, is a major motif of the movie. The climactic duel takes place on a platform emblazoned with the symbol. The film strives for a similar balance in its structure. While the first half is all talk, the second half is nonstop action — duels, battle scenes and sudden, bloody assassinations.
The fight scenes are imaginative and unsuspected; the commander’s weapon of choice is a giant steel umbrella that can shoot razor-sharp blades.
The first half of the film is so slow and deliberate that it almost lost me, but when the second half kicks in, it kicks in hard. "Shadow" isn’t quite up to the level of “Flying Daggers,” but after the dismal Matt Damon monster movie “The Great Wall,” it’s a partial return to form for Yimou.