Hero and House of Flying Daggers filmmaker Yimou Zhang returns to the big screen with Shadow, a film that gets so much right even as it insists on lagging from time to time. This is, in a nutshell, the Zhang conundrum: Do beautifully made kung fu movies that take full advantage of jaw-dropping cinematography and death-defying stunts get a pass on everything else?
In the "pro" column, Shadow paints a pretty picture of fairy-tale intrigue. A war has raged between territories since time immemorial, and the commander of one such territory's army (Chao Deng) hatches a plan along with his clever wife (Li Sun) and a dedicated doppelgänger (also Deng). By out-thinking his opponents, allies and king (Ryan Zhen) at every step, his master plan begins to unfold. Too bad everyone around there is a kung fu genius. Conflict, naturally, arises, and that simple plan of getting a dude who looks just like him to do all kinds of crazy things starts to seem convoluted.
Of course, we're not really here for a flawless plot or fantastic examples of thespian skill—we're here for the kung fu. And it is epic (which we say honestly hating what the internet has done to that word). Here, fans of the genre will find every bit as much to like as in Zhang's other works, but with better tech steering the car and allowing for more complex results. In these fight scenes—replete with bizarre weaponry and stunning, rainswept backgrounds—Shadow succeeds time and time again, but it's often back to the politics of the court, some painfully misdirected stabs at comic levity and long expositional conversations that feel stilted at best.
In Zhang's overall body of work, Shadow holds its own, but it's certainly not going to wind up a cultural phenomenon as his other works have. Ang Lee's brilliant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sort of stacked the kung fu deck forever, anyway, and though Shadow can be good fun, it can also take too long getting there.
+Unbelievably beautiful; those stunts
-Needless conversations; some silly performances
Directed by Zhang
With Deng, Sun and Zhen
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 116 min.