Early in Shadow, a woman looks at her male companion and says, “Your zither needs tuning.” It’s one big understatement, and it’s not just about music. Every character in the film probably needs some zither tuning in one way or another. Shadow shows a time and place that are out of balance, and over the course of the movie, things do not straighten themselves.
Zhang Yimou is one of the great masters of color in the movies. A friend once said that Zhang owns the color red, which you can see in Red Sorgum, Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home and most of Zhang’s other films. His movie Ju Dou takes place in a dye factory, where the intensity of color matches the passion of the illicit love affair taking place. But with Shadow, Zhang goes to an unexpected palette of grays, black and white. He’s reworking the ancient Chinese tradition of ink wash painting. It feels as if you can almost see other colors, if you look hard enough, but it’s never quite there, except for a couple of hits of red blood late in the picture.
The movie comes from the Jingzhao epic set in third century China; two kingdoms are at odds. The king of Pei says he wants peace with the kingdom of Jing. But there’s a lot of trickery, and it will surprise no one that peace is not achieved. But plenty happens along the way.
Like a lot of Chinese martial arts pictures, Shadow feels as if it’s set both in an actual world and also an imaginary, mythic place. Scenes feel too purposeful to be in actual places. A military commander hides out in something like a cave with the yin/yang mandala on the floor. He looks disheveled and out of whack, and on that symbol, he practices fighting with a younger man who’s his shadow – meaning a person who stands in for the commander and fools everyone in the film except the commander’s wife, who takes the shadow as her lover.
In a way, director Zhang Yimou is out of step with his times, and certainly with younger Chinese filmmakers. He’s working with symbolic mythic material while recent directors focus on the grubbiness of actual Chinese society – underpaid workers and petty gangsters. The shadow struggles to prepare for a one-on-one combat with the leader of Jing, so the wife/lover tells him he must learn feminine moves. She has him wrap himself around her so they can meld, and he can understand the feminine side of himself.
Shadow takes on the balancing of opposites. The yin/yang symbol is about opposites, as are male and female, and the shadow and the commander. The kingdom of Pei is wet – it rains constantly – but the kingdom of Jing is characterized by fire.
Zhang Yimou is not the kind of filmmaker to make all of this look like a normal day in a normal world. The movie is a choreography. Chinese martial arts films have a dance-like atmosphere, but Zhang Yimou takes Shadow into unusual areas. It’s a gorier film than many. It’s typical to see large scale conflicts with many characters knocked out of the fray, but they’re not necessarily dead. Shadow shows them dying in agony and then dead, and the movie is bloody. By the end, as one character after another is stabbed to death, I thought about the end of Hamlet, where the floor is littered with bodies.
But Hamlet finds a new stability. Shadow is finally about continual political and personal instability and uncertainty. The killing solves nothing; the end of the movie leaves those characters still alive with no place to be. The name of the game seems to be betrayal, and there’s no one to trust, no figure of accommodation or compromise. Both literally and metaphorically, the color is gone from this world, and the red of the blood offers no hope.