Only Zhang Yimou would have the guts to bring an umbrella to a sword fight.
One of the great stylists of Chinese cinema returns to the past and returns to something like his form with “Shadow,” a by turns austere, chatty and gonzo martial arts epic in the tradition of “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero.”
Its opening acts are so convoluted, intrigue-charged and well, dull, that it’s easy to say that Zhang lost a step or two making that Godawful “The Great Wall.”
Its action climax is so over-the-top that one longs for the simple silliness of wire work — flying fighters, swordsmen and swords women, of decades of martial arts quickies and the Oscar winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
But “Shadow” is still vintage Yimou, with style and brio and a production design that has been his signature since his career’s beginnings — “Red Sorghum,” “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern.”
In China’s mythic past, three kingdoms fought over Jing City. The Yang and Pei dynasty’s teamed up to oust the third rival.
But the Yang kept Jing City, a source of friction. Fortunately, or unfortunately the Pei ruler (Ryan Zheng) is determined to keep the peace at all costs.
“Never speak of a war you can’t win!”
His great commander (Chao Deng) suffered grievous wounds in the war, but he’s all for stirring it up again to win back Jing City.
“No ruler can oppose his people’s will.”
The king won’t hear it, but won’t behead his favorite commander for his insubordination. He just humiliates him, forcing him to cut off his symbolic topknot, taunting him to join his wife for a zither duet and them demoting him to commoner, where he can scheme about doing things his way and actually go play zither duets with his wife (Li Sun). Or so we would believe.
The commander, it turns out, was more seriously hurt than we’d thought. Damned if he hasn’t trained a healthy commoner look-alike to take his place at court and beat the drums of war.
The “real” commander looks like a prophet as the young king promises his sister in marriage to a member of the Yang dynasty, only to get the counter-offer that she (Xiaotong Guan) come on over and become his concubine instead.
The gall of those Yangs. They’ll pay for this in blood, right?
Director and co-writer Zhang burns through over half of the picture with these intrigues, which are both complex and time consuming. It’s almost more fun to focus on the stunning color palette Zhang has chosen for the film. “Shadow” looks like a shadow, a charcoal drawing etched in blacks, greys and whites, with greenery in the exterior shots muted and masked in perpetual rain and fog.
It’s every bit as gorgeous as the greens of “House of Flying Daggers,” the symbolic red and gold of “Ju Dou” and scarlet and black of “Raise the Red Lantern.”
Just as that design and all those subtitles (for non Chinese speakers) come close to putting one to sleep, Zhang springs the action beats of the long third act on us. It is, frankly, nuts, overloaded with ancient Chinese bamboo tech — wrist-crossbow Uzis, Scuba tanks and the like.
And those umbrellas, a way to curve and “bend with the rain” in battle, so “feminine,” yes? What a secret weapon!
I fell in love with Zhang’s films way back when “Ju Dou” debuted at the New York Film Festival back in the last millennium, and “Shadow” does nothing to shake that fandom. It’s not one of his very best, not on a par with “Hero” (Jet Li’s finest hour) or “House of Flying Daggers” even.
But it still becomes a rousing, stately entry in the martial arts genre. Eventually.
MPAA Rating: unrated, bloody as all get out
Cast: Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Xiaotong Guan
Credits: Directed by Zhang Yimou, script by Li Wei and Zhang Yimou. A Well Go release.
Running time: 1:56