Black and white and Zhang Yimou: That's the Chinese master filmmaker's latest, "Shadow," in summation. It's a stylistic choice that betrays what viewers know of him as a colorful filmmaker, especially from his wuxia films "Hero" (2002), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004), and "Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006). Yet while the initial distinction is visual, it goes deeper than that: "Shadow" has an increased humanism with the absence of Zhang's beloved colors.
In "Shadow," Zhang's impetus is subterfuge: In the Pei Kingdom, under governance by its petty king (Zheng Kai), Commander Yu (Deng Chao) advocates war on a neighboring occupying power, currently holding the tactically valuable city of Jingzhou. Rather than risk war, the king placates opposition forces by marrying off his sister, Princess Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), to the son of the great warrior Yang (Hu Jun); rather than obey his king, Yu goes ahead and starts a war anyway. Yu, it turns out, isn't Yu; he's Jing, a low-born man spared an impoverished childhood by the real Yu on account of the uncanny resemblance they share. He is—cue title—Yu's shadow. The real Yu is in hiding, scheming with his wife, Xiao'ai (Sun Li), to bring down his king while Jing goes to court in his stead. No one's the wiser.
For many, mention of Zhang's name likely conjures images of gently swirling kaleidoscopic colors: Blazing reds, tranquil blues, cool greens, purifying whites. Color is Zhang's bread and butter, deployed for obvious reasons—aesthetics—as well as evidential reasons: He treats his palettes as a set of clues for determining truth and establishing character. In "Hero," for instance, palette swaps allow the audience to observe the film's plot anew through alternating perspectives; each retelling of Zhang's tale of noble sacrifice begets a new primary color, and each color infuses the tale with new meaning and new tones. Meanwhile, in "House of Flying Daggers," green serves as a dual symbol of nature's beauty and nature's lethality. The woods are beautiful, until they up and kill you.
"Shadow" abandons the interpretive flourishes of Zhang's traditional color fixations, draining all from the frame other than his actors' skin tones and shed blood. Gone are hypnotic sequences of red garbed assassins dueling before a canvas of falling red leaves, replaced by an inkier palette of blacks and whites and grays; there are no courtyard melees between warriors encased in bright gold armor and silent swarms of black-clad enemies, replaced by a city siege fought under storm clouds. The grayscale presentation reads less as a "departure" for Zhang and more specifically as anti-Zhang.
But it's better, more correct, to consider that choice as an act of reinvention. After spending years deploying strategically color throughout his work, switching over to grayscale is a welcome, maybe even necessary, challenge. New tricks make demands of old dogs, after all. For Zhang, that means finding ways to make grayscale filmmaking function as well as color does in his familiar milieu, or better than color; it means figuring out how to dazzle his audiences, particularly those American viewers who came to know him initially through "Hero," while depriving himself of his trademarked toolkit.
Think of "Shadow" as Zhang's "Mad Max: Fury Road": It's a film that relies on composition and staging more than color, so when color is drained from its frames, it still looks absolutely incredible and draws the viewer in with magnetic power. When focused on said composition, the eyes notice something more: Humanity. Color in Zhang's movies takes an equal position in the proceedings as character. It's not that character doesn't matter to Zhang. It's that character doesn't matter foremost in his storytelling. Couched in his work, color counts as a character as much as an artistic detail. "Hero"'s palette does much of the legwork for its cast in terms of identifying character via their performances; color signifies intentions and motivations, providing immediate, vital information about each of its characters for the audience's elucidation.
"Shadow'"s color scheme jettisons any such visual aid. At best, it lets viewers know when someone's been slashed open by a sword or spear; Zhang's reds look deep, rich, and viscous, quite unlike the reds of "Hero," untamed and passionate. But grayscale's purpose in the movie is ambiguity. "Shadow" is comparatively knottier when sat next to "Hero," "House of Flying Daggers," and "Curse of the Golden Flower." The narrative twists and turns itself into an amoral puzzle box that makes protagonists nigh-indistinguishable from antagonists; at any given moment, the person we'd normally consider the good guy comes off as the villain, and the person we'd peg as the villain reads as the most just person in the room. Nearly every character here is out for themselves: Only Jing and Madam, and perhaps Yu's loyal aide-de-camp, Tian (Wang Qianyuan), stay on the same moral wavelength from start to finish, and even they struggle with complicated emotions as circumstances in Pei rapidly deteriorate.
Zhang, of course, could have opted for color and "Shadow" may still have benefited from the script's layers of complexity. Sapped of color, however, those complexities are wildly enhanced: by consequence, the film places more emphasis on the characters and on Zhang's casting than on DP Zhao Xiaoding's stunning photography and the art department's breathtaking set design. "Shadow" looks outstanding, no doubt. But a Zhang Yimou movie should, at very least, look outstanding. The nuances defining the king, Jing, Yu, Madam, Tian, and Qingping become clarified and amplified; Deng's dual role as Yu and Jing, Sun's stricken work as the torn Xiao'ai, Zheng's broad villainy, and Hu's dignified martial grace command the screen.
"Shadow" divorces the normal union between Zhang's cast and Zhang's aesthetics. That's to the film's advantage. A world devoid of color means a world in which humanity stands out, both literally and figuratively: Each actor in the ensemble pops against the black and white settings, and each character's personality maintains a level of prominence characters in the wuxia trilogy don't. Zhang cedes the foreground to them through the muted alien beauty of his backdrops. "Shadow," ultimately, is the most unique movie in his oeuvre on grounds of stylization, but more importantly it's his most proudly human.