“Shadow” shows a master at the top of his game, and if you have any love at all for the movies and the places they can take you, catch this one on the biggest screen possible. (It’s opening Friday at the Boston Common, Kendall Square, and the South Bay multiplex.) With just a handful of settings and a desaturated palette of four colors – black, white, flesh, blood — Zhang Yimou conjures an epic that draws equally upon Shakespeare, Kurosawa, wu-xia martial arts films, and the most elemental melodramas of the silent screen, all while playing like the best Mandarin-language episode of “Game of Thrones” you’ll ever see (especially this season).
The era is China’s distant past, when two realms exist in uneasy alliance. The city of Jing belongs to the kingdom of Pei but has been held for years by Yang (Hu Jun), a master swordsman from the rival side. The foremost soldier of Pei, known as the Commander (Deng Chao), wants to reclaim the city, but his king (Zheng Kai), a scheming playboy punching above his weight, doesn’t want to wreck the truce.
Is there more? Oh, Lordy, there is more. We learn early on that the man the king believes is the Commander is actually a double — a “shadow” — because the real Commander (also Chao) has been crippled by his injuries from an earlier fight with Yang and lives in a hidden apartment in the palace, from which he plots a cackling revenge on just about everyone. The only other person in on the secret is the Commander’s devoted wife, Xiao (Li Sun), who looks at the madman who used to be her husband (and now looks more like Gollum) and wonders if the modest, adoring double isn’t the better bet.
A naïve princess (Guan Xiaotong) figures into the mix, as does the Commander’s trusty second-in-command (Wang Qianyuan), but, honestly, the high that one gets from “Shadow” comes from the ravishing visuals and reckless energy. Zhang appeared on the scene in the late 1980s as the foremost of China’s “Fifth Generation” directors with festival prizewinners like “Red Sorghum” (1988) and “Ju Dou” (1990); at the beginningof the millennium he turned his talents to the wu-xia genre popularized in this country by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Zhang films like “Hero” (2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (2004) are among the most artfully eye-popping examples of wu-xia ever made.
Daringly, Zhang has traded in the vibrant colors of his earlier films for chiaroscuro cinematography that verges on black and white. “Shadow” was shot in the mountains of Hubei province, and the weather is an unending downpour. Outside, distant ranges disappear into the mist, while the interiors are a maze of scrims and screens, black calligraphy on white gauze. Every character casts a shadow here; no one is quite who she or he seems. The Yin-Yang symbol underscores the duality and is visually worked into a game-playing board, a practice arena, and even the conceptual choreography of the battle sequences.
About those battle sequences: They’re astonishing. When the ragtag volunteer army of Pei attacks the captive city of Jing, it’s with umbrellas whose spines are lethal blades; at one point the soldiers each clam themselves up between two open umbrellas, turtle style, and slide into the city en masse during a driving rain. (The nod to Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” seems overt.) The film’s action director, Dee Dee, deploys human bodies as figures in an endlessly moving canvas, one in which a flexible “feminine” style of combat vies against a rigid men-with-swords mentality.
“Shadow” isn’t quite as perfect as one might wish. Zhang likes to drop us spank in the middle of a sequence, and the early going takes some sorting out, especially for English-speaking moviegoers. Since the major battle scenes come about three-quarters in, the final half hour is devoted to loose ends, debts settled, and a lot of twists you may not see coming (and may enjoy even if you do). By then an audience can feel wrung dry, and there’s an argument that Zhang keeps us at the fair too long, with one or two too many narrative switchbacks and paybacks. But can you blame him for wanting to stay in this dazzling “Shadow” world? Is there ever too much of a good thing?
Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Zhang and Li Wei. Starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Guan Xiaotong. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, South Bay Center. 116 minutes. Unrated (as R, martial arts violence and stylized bloodletting). In Mandarin, with subtitles.