A subtle art house favourite turned massive action artiste, Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero) is a revered yet odd n’ unpredictable filmmaker. His previous feature before returning to TIFF this year was a controversial one: the Matt Damon-headlined action fantasy The Great Wall. It was a bizarre mixture of historical fantasy action, dragon beasts, bungee assassins, xenophobia, and white saviours. Despite Yimou’s first and troubled stab and baiting North American audiences, it bombed stateside while making a fortune literally everywhere else. Yep, that was a weird one. For a follow up, Zhang Yimou went for a more traditional and commercial project. Thankfully when Yimou puts his version of those things on screen, it still leads to stunning and delightfully batshit spectacle.
Plot is not really Shadow’s strong suit. The first hour is practically a chamber drama of betrayal and doubles and historical melodrama that quite frankly can feel a little overcooked and dull. The actors are strong, but stuck playing symbolic archetypes that allow for little humanity. However, what gets you through are the visuals. Yimou is a filmmaker known for his stylized and lush use of color. Here he deliberately robs himself of all of that, designing the film entirely in harshly contrasting black and white. Not through black and white cinematography or color correction mind you, but production and costume design. It’s gorgeous and creates an oddly sombre tone difficult to describe.
Then at the hour mark the action takes over and good lord is it ever electrifying. There are one-on-one fights and epic army battles, both balletically choreographed and viciously brutal. It’s impossible not to be blown away, especially when the singular weapon of a bladed umbrella appears and is used in such brutal and ingenious ways that you can’t help but giggle once you get your jaw off of the floor.
Shadow is not Zhang Yimou’s best movie or even his best action movie (Hero retains both titles, for the record). However, the back half of this movie is so insane and sumptuously crafted that it begs to be seen by any fans of this filmmaker or genre. It’s a beautiful and wild ride, no matter how long and languid the film feels while getting to the good stuff.