Zhang Yimou’s beautiful wuxia epic comes home to 4K and Blu
Shadow is the latest film from veteran Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose films (which include Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and The Great Wall) are known for their gorgeous cinematography, elegiac themes, and vivid use of color.
Shadow is a new martial arts epic which closely follows in this tradition, with one major difference. Instead of bursting with colors, this is a muted affair. Its appearance is nearly black and white, with only minimal, pale color.
At first I thought that the film was merely desaturated, but as it went on I came to believe that this is probably black and white with spot colorization added, as what colors are here aren’t designed to look natural, but to subtly highlight, essentially, life and death. Everything with a hint of color is, or once was, alive: skin tones, blood, foliage, bamboo.
The story concerns a divided kingdom, and at the center of the conflict the city of Jingzhou. On the throne, the “King of Pei” avoids war, not for any noble purpose, but rather to hang onto his existing power without risk, and spare himself the inconvenience of doing any actual work. Opposing him are his popular commander General Ziyu and those in the military who follow him, who wish to take back their city by force.
This conflict comes to a head when the king’s offer of his sister as a bride in exchange for the return of the city is dealt an insulting response: the opposing prince would instead take her as his concubine. Ziyu resigns the king’s service and chooses to fight an illegal war rather than allow such an aggression to stand.
The film’s first half is a bit laborious of a setup establishing all this sort of background, and I haven’t even mentioned the weirdest part: the General is not in fact the General at all, but a double — his shadow. The real General was wounded in battle, and is now weak and in hiding. His double, whose name is also Jingzhou, is quick-witted and looks convincingly similar, but lacks the same military experience and fighting prowess.
The second half more than makes up for the lengthy exposition with an epic multi-tiered battle that incorporates sleight of hand, a Trojan Horse operation, and incredible, visually arresting battle strategies that I’ve never seen before on screen. While the proxy General distracts the opposing commander Yang Cang with a duel (which, as the inferior fighter, he’s unlikely to survive), the army invades the city employing the use of bladed umbrellas in their assault.
Let’s talk about these umbrellas for a second.
Amazing Chinese weaponry is a hallmark of wuxia and martial arts films, and these umbrellas are among the coolest and most versatile of this tradition, serving as both both sword and shield. They’re used in a number of creative ways in combat, including being able to shoot blades as projectiles, but one of the coolest (if a bit unbelievable) sequences features our attackers ducking into umbrellas paired end to end, clamshell style, and launching themselves down the city streets like huge, spinning shurikens.
The battle sequences are incredible and satisfying, and are followed by a wrap-up of the political aspects of the tale that packs in a lot great, escalating surprises for the audience.
Shadow is available today from Well Go USA, and marks their very first 4K Blu-ray release. I was a little surprised that they would debut the format with a film that has such a limited color palette — the release has HDR but I wasn’t sure how much it could benefit much from the expanded color range. But the 4K edition looks absolutely gorgeous, and everything on the screen is incredibly lifelike, crisp, and textured. I don’t use any motion smoothing on my TV, but even so the movie has a fluidity and pop to it that looks very lifelike. Battle scenes in particular clash vividly with almost tactile weaponry, ornately detailed armor, and wet splashes of water — and red blood which pops off the screen in particular, against the mostly monochromatic backdrop.
The Blu-ray version, from which my screenshots are pulled, is also superb as these images demonstrate.
The package includes a 4K disc housing the film only, and a Blu-ray disc which includes the special features in addition to the film. (update: my review copy didn’t come with a slipcover, but I confirmed in-store that at least some retail copies do).
Special Features and Extras
Behind the Scenes footage with Zhang Yimou (3:17)
Clips of the legendary director at work across various aspects of production
Behind the Scenes (2:43)
A promo reel highlighting the all-star cast and a montage of behind the scenes footage.
About the Double (2:18)
Exploring the film’s Doppelgänger theme
The Unknown Side of Zhang Yimou (3:03)
Another profile on Yimou, but more focused on his personality and having fun rather than filmmaking
Backstage Heroes (4:06)
An appreciation of the film’s many crew members from various departments
Deng Chao vs Deng Chao (2:49)
Actor Deng Chao’s dual role
Zheng Kai, the Multi-Faced King (2:02)
Ryan Zheng on the challenges of calligraphy and dying on camera
Trailers (1:56, 2:05)
Promotional Trailers for other Well Go USA Releases
Ip Man 4 Teaser (:34), Legend of the Demon Cat (2:05), Better Days (1:24), and Freaks (1:35)
Stellar film, stellar release. It takes awhile to build up, but the second half had me cheering! I’m very much looking forward to Well Go USA building up a 4K library.
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All 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the Blu-ray disc (not 4K) with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.