Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai
Playing at IFC Center, the Landmark at 57 West
Zhang Yimou, arguably the most important living Chinese film director, has returned after his Matt Damon misfire “The Great Wall" with one of the finest in his career. Mixing the eye-popping action of his early 2000s films “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” with the emotional twists of his 1990s works like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Ju Dou,” “Shadow” is a rich, juicy tale of court intrigue as well as a visual action-adventure feast. It is one of the best movies of the year.
The film is set in China’s Three Kingdoms period (roughly 1800 years ago), stylized in a wash of gray shades. A recurring theme is the yin and yang symbol of balance and interconnectivity. This doesn’t just work on thematic levels, but also provides wide goalposts for the inevitable introduction of red. (And when it comes, it flows.)
Deng Chao stars as the cunning Commander, wounded in combat against General Yang (Hu Jun). When the cowardly King (Zheng Kai) accepts a rotten treaty that secures his position but brings shame to his people, the Commander begins grooming a young man (also played by Deng) — a “shadow” — that can pass for his double. A complex scheme is set into motion.
A series of very formalized scenes are set in the calligraphy-adorned throne room, a hidden underground lair and rainswept training grounds on rocky cliffs. In the mix is the Commander’s wife, simply called Madam (Sun Li), the only one aware of the Shadow. (Take a guess what happens after the two must continue their charade of being a couple.) There’s also the King’s noble sister (Guan Xiaotong) who refuses an insulting romantic offer from General Yang’s son.
An hour-and-fifteen minutes of elegant, stagy posturing (the cries of “Clownish King!” from a defiant guardsman being a highlight) leads to a stunning series of battle sequences with some of the most creative use of ornate weaponry I’ve ever seen. The Commander realizes that he can only defeat Yang by incorporating some of Madam’s “feminine” techniques, which makes for some unusual fight choreography.
With “Game of Thrones’ ” disappointingly dark Battle of Winterfell a recent memory, “Shadow” is even more of a win, nailing both palace trickery and epic action. Sometimes you still need to go out to the movies.