Zhang Yimou’s Latest Wuxia Epic

The latest Chinese opus from director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) looks gorgeous but primarily revolves around slow drama. Shadow is more about political intrigue and period costume drama than unforgettable wuxia fights.

Ballet-like martial arts and intricate sword fights are put on the backburner as Shadow’s methodical pacing requires immense patience from viewers. Zhang Yimou has fashioned a Chinese period epic that revolves around warring kingdoms fighting over the contested Jing City.

In the Pei kingdom ruled by an unpredictable king, top military commander Zi Yu has a secret weapon: a “shadow,” a close double who can fool both his enemies and the King himself. Now the commander must use this secret weapon in a cunning plan in spite of the King.

The commander’s main goal is reclaiming Jing City for the Pei Kingdom against the King’s wishes. Defeated in single combat by their enemy’s chief general, the commander has masterminded a devious strategy to get Jing City back.

…A confusing opening act and slowly-developing plot work against the magnificent craftsmanship

Actor Deng Chao plays both the commander and Jing, the lowly commoner picked to be the commander’s shadow. Jing has been living the past year as the commander in the royal court, while Zi Yu himself has been hiding in a cave recovering from a serious injury. The commander is at odds with King Pei Liang (Zheng Kai), a young monarch that suspects trouble is afoot in his royal court. Jing has to play husband to the commander’s wife, known only as Madam (Sun Li). With the King looking on, their relationship may give away the whole subterfuge.

Despite the gorgeous production design and lavish period costumes, something in Shadow feels off. Those excited by traditional wuxia action and high-flying acrobatics will come away disappointed. This is an overly serious and melodramatic costume drama with brief excursions into real action. What Shadow delivers in spades is intensely dramatic acting punctuated by a few bloody conflicts. The few action set pieces are interestingly constructed and feature intriguing new ideas never seen before on the big screen.

Made consciously without Western story elements, Shadow doesn’t have the same appeal and blistering action of Zhang Yimou’s biggest successes like House of Flying Daggers. A confusing opening act and slowly-developing plot work against the magnificent craftsmanship and rich production values. However, Shadow looks and sounds like a million bucks on the screen. It’s pretty enough to watch as elaborately staged eye candy even if you find the drama boring and slow.

Video

Director Zhang Yimou explains in the special features how he wanted Shadow to resemble traditional Chinese painting with a nearly monochromatic aesthetic. Shadow’s darkly atmospheric palette is drenched in black and grey, matching the rain-soaked Jing City. The only real hints of significant color come from bloody wounds, as several characters end up drenched in their own blood. Shadow’s depth and dimension is quite impressive – this is eye-popping clarity with exacting definition. Its shadow delineation is spectacular in certain scenes, including the commander’s secret hideaway cave.

This is a UHD presentation that will test your display’s grayscale and ability to handle the deepest black levels. It contains meticulous cinematography with interesting compositions, but don’t expect more than a splash of color in the video. The brightest highlights are rather tame by 4K standards. Shadow’s peak NIT levels in the meta-data reveal some rather unusual technical specifications that don’t conform to most UHDs put out by Hollywood.

Zhang Yimou’s creative aesthetic makes releasing Shadow on UHD somewhat of a curious choice despite its impressive digital pedigree. It’s not an HDR showcase despite technically being an HDR transfer done at 4K with the latest high-powered digital cameras. You can’t question Shadow’s superior detail and texture. The 2160P resolution offers razor-sharp and intensely revealing 4K detail. The green-screen elements put a small dent into the overall sharpness but no one can question Shadow’s raw definition.

Well Go USA includes the 115-minute main feature on a UHD-66, encoded in perfectly transparent HEVC. While it’s still possible to have banding and other issues using UHD’s preferred HEVC codec, I have yet to spot such a disc in the wild. This is flawless 2.40:1 video quality taken from an impressive 4K master.

Audio

As much costume drama as dynamic wuxia action flick, Shadow’s Atmos audio heard in its original Mandarin has several expressive moments of phenomenal immersion. One of the movie’s few action set pieces sees an entire cadre of archers raining arrows down on a street of invaders, drenched in atmospheric rain. It’s a perfect match for Atmos’ ability to spatialize audio in a way not possible with earlier formats. Slower scenes are a parade of dialogue, crisply heard in a clean mix.

Since virtually the entire movie’s exterior scenes take place while raining, a constant stream of subtle surround immersion helps define the soundstage. The Atmos channels are largely used for ambient support. The pristine audio fidelity gets highlighted with the zither’s acoustic clarity, which comes into play a couple of times during Shadow.

A secondary English dub in 5.1 Dolby Digital is included. Most English dubs on Well Go USA’s releases usually feel like an afterthought, but this isn’t a bad effort. Three optional subtitles are available. English, traditional Chinese (Mandarin) and simplified Chinese subtitles play in a white font inside the scope framing at all times.

Extras

Well Go USA makes the leap into 4K content and UHDs with Shadow, their first UHD release. Coming in UHD’s now familiar black eco-Lite Vortex case, both UHD and Blu-ray versions are included.

All of the combo set’s advertised special features are only included on the Blu-ray disc. No digital copies are included.

Seven making-of featurettes are included that go behind the scenes into Shadow’s creation and production. A few cast and crew members are interviewed across them. Set footage reveals director Zhang Yimou’s directing method and other insights. All featurettes are in Chinese with forced English subtitles.

About The Double (02:17 in HD)

The Director (03:17 in HD)

The Unknown Side of Zhang Yimou (03:03 in HD) – The director has his birthday celebrated.

Behind The Scenes (02:43 in HD)

Heroes (04:06 in HD)

Deng Chao Vs Deng Chao (02:49 in HD) – The transformation undergone by actor Deng Chao playing two very different characters.

Zheng Kai, The Multi-faceted King (02:02 in HD)

Shadow International Trailer (02:05 in HD)

Shadow USA Trailer (01:56 in HD)

A series of Well Go USA trailers are also included (HD): Better Days, Freaks, IP Man 4, The Illusion.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Shadow
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Zhang Yimou’s latest wuxia actioner is short on fighting and long on blood-drenched drama.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our Patreon-exclusive set of 43 full 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: