It is a time of turmoil for “a great walled city” (any resemblance to China is completely not coincidental) in some undefined long-ago era. Three clans fight for control of the territory; two team up to defeat the third. Then a warrior for one of these last dynasties standing, the Yan, severely wounds the Commander (Deng Chao) of their rivals, the Pei. They now own the city. The Pei military higher-ups want war. Their king (Ryan Zheng), who is definitely paranoid and may or may not also be batshit crazy, would prefer the more diplomatic solution of marrying off his sister (Xiaotong Guan) to the young Yan prince (Lei Wu). Never mind that it’s the last thing she wants. There is power to consolidate. Sorry.
As for the Commander, well, he’s still bitter about that defeat on the battlefield. And the King, he’s not so crazy that the chief of his army is saying that acquiescing to the Yan makes them look soft. That’s the kind of stance that gets your head forcibly removed in the royal chambers. Only the guy standing before his majesty, talking mad trash to power? That’s not actually the Commander. It’s a man named Jing (also Deng Chao), who, once upon a time, was plucked out of a village to be the soldier’s “shadow” — a sort of decoy-in-waiting in case things got hairy. The real one is in hiding, training his lookalike to fight like him. Only he and the Commander’s wife, Madam (Sun Li), can save the empire from outside forces and interior moral corruption.
Loosely riffing on the 14th-century epic The Three Kingdoms, the latest movie from Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou may not have it all narrative-wise, but it isn’t from lack of trying. With its tale of doubles and derring-do and the damage that can be done with a blade, it owes as much to Alexandre Dumas as it does ancient folklore. And regarding the rest of the elements spilling out of its overstuffed story, the film isn’t taking a page out of literary history so much as borrowing several complete volumes’ worth: court intrigue, secret passages, forbidden love, even more forbidden lust, double-crosses, crossbow gloves, a mano a mano showdown and marital issues solved by zither duets. (Meanwhile, the extended third act suggests that someone just re-read Hamlet recently.)
It’s a lot, and yet, somehow, Shadow often makes it feel like very little — as if the sheer abundance of full-season-binge plot turns at once and occasional flirtations with costume-drama flourishes fooled its creators into thinking it’s more of a work of substance than it is. The superstar of China’s “Fifth Generation” directorial class, Zhang has had a beautifully varied, remarkably storied career, filling his filmography with everything from intimate character studies (Not One Less) to massive martial-arts spectacles (Hero), erotic noirs (Shanghai Triad) to neo-realistic portraits of provincial China (The Story of Qiu Ju). He’s borrowed indirectly from James M. Cain (Ju Dou) and directly from the Coen brothers (A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop); he’s been accused of being a government propagandist and had his films banned, censored or mysteriously pulled from festivals by his country’s censors. You never know which Zhang or what type of movie you’re going to get. You just know that the announcement that he has new work means attention must be paid.
But with this soap-operatic variation on power, corruption and lies, Shadow gives you the sense that he feels a little lost even inside one of his usual comfort zones. His work with color has always been outstanding; see Hero’s battle scenes or any random five minutes plucked out of his 1991 masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern. Yet the decision to use nothing but shades of gray, with an admittedly striking visual palette inspired by Chinese ink brush paintings, simply mutes the melodrama. Xiaoding Zhao’s cinematography distinguishes this from his other epics of clashing swords and clanging armor, only in all the wrong ways. Battle scenes are drenched in constant rainfall — this is undeniably the wettest movie you’ll see all year — while physical action defaults to slow-motion in a manner that regrettably emphasizes the first word more. Wuxia fans will feel it’s too talky and stilted, though they’re advised to wait it out for a lone hyperkinetic, highly creative sneak attack late in the film. (Two words: umbrella blades.) Folks wishing for a fantastic historical parable will feel it’s too superficial, though the film’s lack of faith in appointed authority is telling. For a movie that uses a Tai chi diagram as a recurring motif (“Use yin to counter yang,” cries one character), balance is the last word you’d associate with it.
Then comes the climax, which trades grandeur for Grand Guignol touches and generally tests your patience. You can already feel elements of the film, from performances to wordy exchanges to the scant sequences of sound and fury, starting to recede from your memory. Even the things worth admiring, like Ryan Zheng’s mustache-twirling villainy and the single most aggressive zither solo ever committed to film, feel outweighed by a curiously heavy, uncompelling dour-chic vibe. Shadow isn’t a bad epic so much as a banal one. The title starts off referring to a doppelgänger and ends up as a description of an artist working as a you-know-what of his former self.