A few weeks ago, fans, and all of social media exploded with complaints, mainly about the cinematography in the massive battle episode of Game of Thrones. These cries were with good cause, for a large majority of the episode, things were so darkly lit it made things extremely hard to pick up for any of the action. If you want to see a movie that delivers a full-scale course on how to shoot a film with dark tones, then go see Zhang Yimou's newest film Shadow. Similar to his previous films, it is about warriors and a fight between two armies, but it is by far one of the greatest visual accomplishments of 2019. Shadow is a mysterious action film, about an orphan, that poses as a general, fighting to claim victory for his proud village. All of this is shrouded in darkness, with spectacular imagery, metaphors, and sword fighting battles. Shadow lingers long after it ends. 

The setting is between two villages, the general of the Pei Army, led by Zhou Jing (Deng Chao), has returned from discussion with the leader of the Yang village (Hu Jun). He has done this without the guidance of despot leader Liang Pie (Zheng Kai), who holds control of the Pei people simply because of his father's passing, placing him in power, and wanting all the glory without the work. Zhou Jing's effort's are rash, but this is not the real Zhou, but an orphan named Jing- training to be Zhou and eventually find his own path. Living below the village is the real Zhou, secluded away after sustaining a severe wound in a previous war and guiding Jing in the art of fighting. This creates massive tension, as the plot to overthrow Liang, who suspects something when Zhou's wife Xiao (Sun Li) does not seem to be herself around her own husband. The build up is to a battle between the two villages, a love triangle, and a divide between those in power.

A bit of a warning about Shadow, is that the first half is a lot of building of tensions, including heavy dialogue, and a pace that takes time to get comfortable with. Audiences will be more than paid off in the end, but that also includes a visual concept unlike anything I have ever seen. The sets and costume design have a unique color pallet of black, white, and grays, looking like a Rorschach test exploding onto the clothes and canvas. On top of the beautiful visuals, Zhang Yimou has had a career of constructing gorgeous fight sequences, including flying action that never looks like a gimmick, but a stroke of artistry.

One of the coolest introductions is the Pei warriors weapon of choice. It sounds impossible, but the Pei fighters have an umbrella of blades, which they twirl, and wield like fierce sorcerers. Imagine if Singin' in the Rain had become a violent action film, that is what Shadow is, including a scene where Zhou weaves in puddles of water, fighting the Yang leader in a fight that I wanted to last forever. Each frame is shrouded in a dark gray color, but never is Shadow lacking light, a crisp visual spectacle from cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, that makes the action sequences look intense, and the calmer sequences look like a beautiful painting. Honestly, I've never seen something quite like it.

The grand finale of Shadow is a mixture of one on one fights, a battle in the Yang village, which includes a full army of soldiers with umbrella blades, and the films ultimate face-off for Zhou and Liang. The result is a film that entertains visually and through spectacularly choreographed warrior fighting scenes. In a lot of ways, this is standard excellence for director Zhang Yimou, but Shadow is a rare piece of cinema, something you may never see again on a unique visual pallet.


Written by: Leo Brady