History, with a touch of the supernatural. Palaces. Mighty warriors, both male and female. Treachery. Mighty multi-segmented battles, with astonishing, sometimes cruel surprises through the bloodletting.
Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s been to these places before in his trademark wuxia martial-arts films, including 2002’s “Hero,” and 2004’s “House of Flying Daggers.” His 2016 film “The Great Wall” drew derision for including a white protagonist, played by Matt Damon, and ended up losing money.
“Shadow,” playing Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema May 10 to 16, finds Zhang back on familiar territory with an all-Chinese cast. This time, though, he’s rendered it in grays. We get all of the aforementioned, plus huge skies, huge cityscapes, and huge armies. But he’s drained all the color out. His characters live, plot, scheme, attack, defend, and die, in amazing varieties of enervating gray — a choice that the director says was inspired by Chinese ink brush painting.
The monochrome color palette was distracting, but I still found much to savor. The plot concerns a king (played by Zheng Kai) who wants very much to keep the peace. But he’s a little too hardheaded, a little too vainglorious, to see what his peacekeeping is costing him at home.
The “shadow” refers to the double of the King’s head warrior, Commander Zi Yu. The double is a peasant who happens to look exactly like the commander (both played by Deng Chao), and stands-in for him when needed.
The commander mistreats his double, unleashing all of his haughtiness and professional frustrations into cruelty. This leaves his “shadow” plotting against the commander, determined to undermine and finally destroy him.
Complicating matters, the double is falling in love with the commander’s wife, Xiao Ai, played by Sun Li (a Chinese television star making a rare foray into film).
Over the course of two hours, a complex plot unfolds. The humble umbrella, bamboo and oil paper together becomes first an improvised weapon, then a deliberate weapon, then a weapon for a vengeful army.
And when the blood flows, we finally see some splashes, runs, and smears of color. Not bright tomato ketchup red. A duller sort of red, reminding us that blood, shed in battle, gets mixed in with dust, dirt, impurities. So it doesn’t often shine regally. But it shows.