There’s a certain traditional type of ink finger-painting in China that director Zhang Yimou’s new movie evokes to seductive perfection. The fortresses in the foreground and the mountains in the background of this martial epic are rendered in the rainy gray shades of that familiar style. It has a brooding starkness, but also a clean, invigorating atmosphere.
At its heart is a violent tale of court intrigue in the Three Kingdoms era, told in a stylized manner. It involves the “shadow,” or double, of a military leader, used in a plot to deceive a feckless young playboy-king who has capitulated to a rival kingdom. Duels and battles ensue, the likes of which you probably haven’t seen before.
These involve weapons like repeating crossbow gauntlets and, most admirably, the “Pei Umbrella,” a perilous parasol composed of overlapping steel blades that can be used as a shield or launched at your opponent; warriors who wield it sometimes use Gene-Kelly-like sashaying dance moves as they approach their foes. I don’t know if there is any historical basis for these implements, but my guess is that they originated in the imaginings of Zhang and his collaborators. The saga comes to a gory, gurgling, groaning final clash; bloody red is Zhang’s accent color to all that gray.
Zhang has been a formidable director from his early days of earnest, absorbing social dramas like Red Sorghum (1987) and The Story of Qui Ju (1992) through his later period of traditional martial arts yarns like The House of Flying Daggers (2004). He’s a master, and his touch on Shadow is confident as it is crazy; when dozens of warriors come hurtling down a street in the rain, riding spinning Pei Umbrellas bottom and top like whirling steel macarons, I was left as baffled as their enemies, and as mesmerized.