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Yimou Zhang’s “Shadow” explores reality and illusion

Updated: May 6, 2020


Set during China's Three Kingdom's era (AD 220-280), Yimou Zhang's "Shadow" is a story about conspiracy, war and romantic love. It's unique and masterful cinematography turn it into Chinese Noir.


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD copy; 2018; Not Rated, contains violence and battle sequences, some gore and frightening, intense scenes; streaming via Amazon Prime, FandangoNOW, Apple (4K), Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: The seven-part “Making Of” documentary

THINK film noir set in ancient China, with conspiracies and murder, a complicated hero, nasty villains, and beautiful women in trouble.

“Shadow” is the latest from Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang, who created award-winning wuxia stories onscreen with “House of Flying Daggers” (2004) and “Hero” (2002).

“Wuxia” actually means “martial heroes.” Good guys, as in Westerns and the best film noir, are loners with a code. Bad guys are evil, whether they’re aristocrats, merchants or military. Women are flexible; they can go either way. 

What sets “Shadow” apart from others is its unique cinematography. It was shot and finished in black-and-white, with a dash of color from skin tones and blood. The effect is haunting, especially on the 1080p, which has less definition than the 2160p with HDR10. It’s similar to watching a residual ghost story, where events repeat again and again.

The first hour is slow going as the plot is revealed. The King of Pei ("Ryan" Zhang Kai) is furious over losing strategic Jing City. It is now held by enemy forces led by General Yang (Jun Hu). Yang won the island of Jing City in an unauthorized duel with Pei’s chief commander, Zi Yu (Chao Deng of “The Mermaid,” a colorful 2016 comedy). He offers to trade his sister, Princess Qing Ping (Xiaotong Guan), as a wife for Yang’s son. He is enraged – becoming more unhinged – when Yang says she’s only acceptable as a concubine. But the King must accept.

(1) Messages are passed between the King of Pei and his enemy General Yang, of the island fortress Jing City. (2) Jing Zhou, the "Shadow" of disgraced Commander Zi Yu enters court. Both roles are played by Chao Deng. (3) King Pei ("Ryan" Zhang Kai) announces his sister, Princess Qing Ping (Xiaotong Guan), will become a concubine to his enemy's son. (4) The Princess attempts to end her life. 

Meanwhile, the disgraced Commander Zi Yu remains in hiding. Gravely wounded, he lives in a secret cave, where he trains his “Shadow,” Jing Zhou, also played by Chao Deng. The younger man appears in court, with the Commander’s wife, Madam Xiao Ai (Li Sun), the only one who knows Jing Zhou’s true identity and her husband's plan to regain Jing City through a new challenge between Yang and his well-trained Shadow. Forced together, Jing Zhou and Xiao Ai are falling in love.  

“The use of doubles began in ancient times, and they’ve been in use till today. The whole world knows what will happen to the double. He either conceals his true identity, or lives in misery. He’s a tool.” — Yimou Zhang, director/co-writer

Exposition is moved along by intense training sequences. Madam develops a new technique, pitting yin against yang. “Yang” is more aggressive and masculine, using swords and spears, while “yin” is fluid and feminine, using stealth and blades. It is more adaptable to change. 

The results are fascinating, even visionary. Once again, director/co-writer Yimou Zhang attempts to illuminate the emotions that drive us all. How do passion and belief motivate? What is real and what is illusion? The big battle takes place during a heavy rainstorm between the Shadow, Yang and their two armies. Movement is sinuous, elegant, and deadly. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.

At the finale, events become very personal between the King, Commander, Shadow and Madam. Yimou Zhang always delivers a stunning climax. “Shadow” maintains the tradition.

(1) Shadow Jing Zhou and the Commander's wife, Madam Xiao Ai (Li Sun), leave court. (2) They return to the Commander's hidden cave so Jing Zhou can receive more training. He insists Jing Zhou learn to play the zither to maintain their secret. (3) Thrown together, the powerless Jing Zhou and Xiao Ai develop feelings for each other. (4) Soon they are able to play together in public as the suspicious King has demanded. 


“Shadow” was digitally shot on the Redcode RAW at 5K using Red Weapon Helium and Phantom Flex cameras, with Zeiss Master Prime, Arri Macro and Angenieux Optimo lenses. It was finished in 4K, with 2.39:1 aspect ratio, achieving an exceptional picture with immersive detail and dimension. Yimou Zhang explains he wanted “Shadow” styled like a Chinese painting in ink and brush. Results range from solid to transparent and flowing, as if costumes and sets were made from silk. The restrained, new attack style is shaped like movement in a Chinese opera, according to the making-of extra.

The HDR10 (disc) & Dolby Vision (digital) contrast levels are bold from deep, inky blacks to brilliant whites, with solid gray gradations in between. Then there’s that pop of color found in the skin tones and blood. They are deliberately desaturated, but much more defined in Ultra 4K HD. Detail is incredibly sharp, with armor, weapons, set decoration and props, costumes and elaborate headdresses in haut-relief.

Bottom line, viewers get two ways to watch the film: the razor edge detail in the 2160p, or the ghosts and shadows of 1080p. It’s a win-win. 

“We want to feel like [we’re] in a traditional Chinese painting. Chinese monochromes, that kind of thing. We adopt the black-and-white style.” — Yimou Zhang, director/co-writer

(1) Courtiers, bureaucrats and soldiers gather in the rain outside the Great Hall of Pei. (2) Using Xiao Ai's yin technique, Jing Zhou defeats the Commander. (4) Secrets are traded in a bamboo forest. A light wash of green highlights the scene. 


Go with the subtitles. The Ultra 4K disc has a terrific Dolby Atmos track in the original Mandarin, with subtitles. The English dub doesn’t hold up against it, but it’s there if you must use it. Dialogue sounds authentic, ranging from whispers to screams. Effects can be as simple as a breeze or as loud as warring armies using arrows, spears and blades. Madam Xiao Ai plays the zither solo and in a duel-like duet with the Commander. Music rages through the room like a weapon. Then there’s the rain, a constant visual and audio reminder of stormy emotions, and actions and results. 

The 1080p disc has a fine Dolby TrueHD 7.1. Its separation and balance are top notch.


Enjoy the trailers; they’re fun to watch. So is the seven-part “Making Of” documentary, whose featurettes include “About the Double,” “The Director,” The Unknown Side of Zhang Yimou,” “Behind the Scenes,” “Heroes,” “Deng Chao,” and “Zheng Kai.” It includes interviews and background with the director, actors and filmmakers.

With a 95-percent rating at and 82-percent audience approval, “Shadow” is not to be missed.

Kay Reynolds

(1) General Yang (Jun Hu) and his army prepare for attack in Jing City. (2)  Jing Zhou arrives to fight Yang. (3) Yang and Jing Zhou prepare for combat as their armies begin to fight. (4) Princess Qing Ping joins the yin army. She will not become a concubine! 


(1 & 2) The Yin army advances, as Jing Zhou and Yang continue their duel. 3 - The Yang army defends Jing City. (4 & 5) The Princess meets Yang's son in combat, and is wounded. 


(1) With Yang dead and Jing City regained, the badly wounded Jing Zhou returns to court. (2) He is seated with Xiao Ai, and welcomed by the mad King Pei who clears the court. (3, 4 & 5) More secrets are uncovered as "Shadow" comes to an end. 





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