Immediately after a recent Game of Thrones, viewers rushed to discuss two things: who killed who, and if it was even possible to see who killed who, given how dark and muddy the episode appeared on many screens. Whether that was due to TV settings or streaming compression rates or a million other variables, squinting through that murky GoT was a reminder: There’s still nothing like watching a big, boisterous epic in a movie theater.
And if you need another reminder, here’s Shadow, director Zhang Yimou’s visually stunning return to the wuxia genre of martial arts epics set in ancient China. Having seen it both in a theater and on a reasonably decent television, all I can say is: Get to the theater for this one. There’s no comparison.
It’s pageant and poetry and ballet, except with super-sharp knives and umbrellas that kill people.
Even during the duller stretches in its opening half, Shadow is flat-out gorgeous, with sets and costumes rendered in watercolor shades of gray, evoking a black-and-white ink drawing or a written text come to life. The fantasy setting is basic—a massive gorge, a flowing river, and little else—and the story’s not much either, with warring kingdoms attempting to broker peace, while the commander of one army trains a doppelganger to take his place.
But once you get through the table-setting of Shadow’s first hour, the action kicks in, and the movie becomes every bit the equal of Zhang’s past triumphs Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Shadow’s breathtaking centerpiece—a rain-soaked, one-on-one duel, coupled with a stealth attack on a city—is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s pageant and poetry and ballet, except with super-sharp knives and umbrellas that kill people. Combined with the film’s grayscale palette—virtually the only other colors are flesh and blood—Shadow is something extraordinary to see. Make sure you do so on the biggest screen possible.