“Without the real, there can be no shadow. A principle no one’s understood.”


At least internationally, Chinese director Zhang Yimou is best known for a pair of visually stunning historical wuxia films that formed the middle of his career: Hero and The House of Flying Daggers. His return to the genre is assured but with a fresh aesthetic that avoids feeling like a retreat. Where Hero was filled with impeccably controlled vibrantly saturated colour (begging for a new HDR master), Shadow is desaturated to the point of being essentially monochrome, moody and ethereal. Through the film’s slow hour, laden with political intrigue, the only hints of colour come through fleshtones, drawing attention to faces and hands. In the violent city battle that follows, dark crimson splashes across water, the film’s ever-present rain coating outdoor scenes in a misty film grain. The titular “shadow” is the film’s central conceit — a man raised to be the double of the city’s renowned commander, taking his place when he becomes injured while the commander undermines the cowardly king and plots war from the (literal) shadows. Shadow‘s central theme is dualism — from the commander and his shadow to the rival cities to the contrasting fire and water fighting styles — heightened through the ornate black and white costuming and set dressing, most notably the yin-yang taijitu design of the two duelling arenas. Although poetic in tone and texture, it cannot live up to the high bar Yimou set in Hero, particularly in respect of its martial arts choreography.