Zhang Yimou is back to what he is known for the best, albeit with a twist. Most of his movies are known for their rich colors but almost entirely the environments are in black and white. The dresses the characters wear, the insides of the palaces, the training grounds for battles and even the skies are in monochrome. And it still looks amazing. Just in terms of aesthetics, the production design and cinematography blend in beautifully and combine black and white for some gorgeous visuals. But it never forgets to serve a narrative purpose. The yin and yang are crucial to the main theme in the movie i.e. a ‘Shadow’. Taken literally, it means a warrior in service of someone like a king, but the movie takes it well beyond that and implies the dynamic exists in all kinds of relationships.
But let’s talk about what everyone wants to. The combat in this movie is absurdly well choreographed. There are set pieces that have made me logically question myself and made me wonder maybe this could just be possible. Without spoiling anything, a technique involving an umbrella-like weapon is probably one of the most anime things I’ve ever seen in a movie. But since the choreography is so fine, it makes it almost believable. The movie also never squeezes the potential out of it and keeps the use of fancy tricks to a minimum. The hand to hand combat sequences are fantastic, particularly the final clash involving the main character. There is some occasional wirework that can be noticed at times and can take one out of the moment, but these moments are rare.
Things do take a while till we see the first set-piece but that’s only to develop and flesh out characters and their relationships which are probably the focus of the movie. The idea of a ‘Shadow’ is explored beautifully in terms of the relationship dynamics between every character. Each character in the movie has a satisfying arc to their story and the performances support that. Especially, considering the slight over the top nature of the combat, the performances ground the movie and make us take their conflicts seriously.
All in all, this is Zhang Yimou returning to his strengths and giving us a gorgeous and well-choreographed wuxia film that deserves more attention.
Read more about Shadow and how it got made here.