This last week in April has seen, with Avengers: Endgame and the Battle of Winterfell episode of Game of Thrones, the culmination on the largest scale possible in our fractured culture of a long-simmering trend in American action filmmaking away from color in favor of a grim, murky, monochrome darkness. The TV show was immediately criticized for being nigh unwatchable on a normal television, its images being so dark and cluttered with digital artifacts, while the Marvel movie chose to stage its splash page final battle, the climax of a decade of franchise-building, not as a triumph of four-color majesty but as a dull smear of muddy gray. I’m not sure where exactly the trend started, it might have been when Tim Burton’s shadowy Batman movies outpaced Warren Beatty’s lively Dick Tracy, or it might have been when the pseudo-realism of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan trumped Terrence Malick’s mystical The Thin Red Line, but it has been the case for most of this century that serious films are required to lack color, a trend not just in Hollywood, but around the world. This is also true in Chinese crime thrillers, where the delirious neon colors of 1980s Hong Kong are being swamped by the bleak, rainy grunge of films like The Looming Storm, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, or Mr. Six. In Chinese cinema, at least, these films are balanced by a popular CGI-driven approach that emphasizes color over verisimilitude, though even these films are not safe from the creeping grime (as in Derek Kwok’s Monkey King movie Wu Kong, or Yuen Woo-ping’s shockingly bland The Thousand Faces of Dunjia). And even in the realm of the Hollywood blockbuster the tide may finally be turning, as witnessed by the unexpected success of James Wan’s brightly bizarre Aquaman after years of dour Zack Snyder DC comic book films.
If there exists one undisputed master of the use of color in contemporary cinema, it’s Zhang Yimou, which is why it’s so perversely hilarious that he has, with his new wuxia Shadow, made a film limited almost entirely to the grays, blacks, and whites of traditional ink-wash painting. The venerable Fifth Generation director, who was the cinematographer for Chen Kaige’s seminal Yellow Earth before making his directorial debut with the lush melodrama Red Sorghum in 1987, is probably still best known for his early 1990s series of period films starring Gong Li: Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, and Shanghai Triad, acclaimed films on the international festival circuit and among the first Chinese films to receive traditional art house releases in the U.S. Aside from Gong herself, a brilliantly magnetic and beautiful actress, these films’ primary attraction is Zhang’s use of color, brilliant reds and yellows and greens heightening the earthy melodrama of his scenarios.
At the turn of the century, after the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang tried his hand at the wuxia genre, and with Hero and House of Flying Daggers redefined what was visibly possible in the genre, using digital effects and his own powerful sense of style to create serenely gorgeous action films. Where the best stylists in the genre before him, Wong Kar-wai (Ashes of Time) and Tsui Hark (The Blade), had emphasized the hallucinatory speed and blur of fighting bodies in motion, Zhang went in the opposite direction, bringing out the balletic beauty of the genre’s leaps and dives by having his fighters dance across a mirror-still lake, or the stillness and calm of the mind at work before movement begins, time slowing down to the nothingness between musical beats and drops of rain. Zhang’s films, like Lee’s, are an outgrowth not of the wuxia as bloody struggle of will and honor as Chang Cheh conceived it in the 1970s, nor as nihilistic contests of speed and chaos as Tsui and Ching Siu-tung developed in the 1980s. Rather, the great early 2000s wuxias look back to King Hu’s sublime, refined, poetic wuxia A Touch of Zen.
But while both Hero and House of Flying Daggers were hits, Zhang found diminishing returns with his third wuxia, The Curse of the Golden Flower, which, alongside another pseudo-Shakespearean elevated-wuxia, Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet, marked the end of that mini-trend. Zhang went back to small scale melodramas, mostly period films (the Republican Era and the Cultural Revolution his usual stomping grounds), and choreographed the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which earned him as much praise as it did notoriety: the critics who once championed him as an avatar of defiance against the Chinese state (because his films were sometimes censored at home) now saw him as complicit with that state (fed also by a popular, though I think incorrect, understanding of Hero, but that’s a whole other story). The truth, as far as I can tell (and that isn’t very far: be wary of any outsider who claims to understand the inner workings of Chinese politics) is somewhere in the middle. Zhang was never really a political filmmaker, nor has he ever really been a filmmaker of ideas or personality. He’s what they used to call a metteur en scène, a technical craftsman of the highest order, with the quality of his films, beyond their obvious aesthetic loveliness, highly dependent on the source material with which he’s working. It’s why Gong Li, Jiang Wen and the color red are the most memorable things about Red Sorghum, and the same goes for all his other classics.
Which brings us back to Shadow, a supremely gorgeous wuxia with some absolutely thrilling moments that ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than that. In a riff on the Kagemusha idea, the top general in the Kingdom of Pei, Ziyu, has a double whom he has been training for 20 years (Jingzhou, both characters played by Deng Chao, star of The Mermaid and Duckweed). The double is now impersonating him, after the general suffered a crippling blow in a duel with Yang, the top general from the rival city of Jing. Ziyu is maneuvering the kingdom into war to retake Jing, despite the wishes of his King, played by Zhang Kai. Ziyu’s wife (Sun Li) is in on the scheme, but is also maybe falling in love with the double, who definitely is in love with her. As the film begins, Jingzhou has challenged Yang to a duel, during which time Ziyu will spring his invasion of Jing. But the King begins to suspect that something is up with the double. The first hour of the film is taken up with scene setting: the King’s suspicions played out in lengthy, loudly acted monologues; Ziyu’s schemes are equally monologued, but with even more scenery gobbling. Apparently Ziyu, a master strategist who has spent years planning his revenge, set the clock ticking on his invasion without first figuring out exactly how he’s going to defeat Yang’s seemingly invincible sword technique, which seems like a major problem until his wife, skilled at divination and lute-playing and also apparently kung fu, proposes a solution based on a Taoist pun on the rival general’s name.
It’s a whole lot of build-up, but it actually does payoff: the fight scenes are brilliantly staged, both the duel and the invasion are clever and unique. It’s rare to see something you’ve never seen before in such well-traveled generic territory as the wuxia, and Shadow, with its unexpected use of umbrellas and handheld crossbows and elegantly framed and cut fight sequences (choreographed by Dee Dee, a longtime stunt performer who worked on Jet Li classics like Fist of Legend, Tai Chi Master and Black Mask, and was the action director for Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, among other films), delivers all the innovative imagery one could hope for. It’s probably the rainiest wuxia ever, basically a full-length version of the Jet Li-Donnie Yen fight in Hero, right down to the spare, deeply resonant twangs on the soundtrack. In its labyrinthine plot machinations, there’s an idea of violence begetting violence and the cruelty of war and power as it relates to subject peoples, commoners and women alike. Ziyu is leading his country to war from within the bowels of the castle: he is literally the deep state at work. In its bloody pessimism, Shadow is light years away from King Hu, but instead is an aestheticization of Chang Cheh’s late films, movies like House of Traps or Masked Avengers, gothic wuxias wherein men are ripped apart by machines not of their making, literally, in the form of ingenious tools of murder and combat, and figuratively, in that they’re usually pawns in the hands of corrupt and unfathomable forces of power. Those films, like Shadow, cannot escape from a certain monotony. But it’s the monotony of doom. Of knowing that there’s no escape from death and darkness.