Deng Chao in “Shadow.” (Well Go USA Entertainment)
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Rating:

The latest movie from Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of three Oscar nominees — “Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Hero” — as well as the critical and box-office flop “The Great Wall,” is an accomplishment, but of what?

Of art direction and cinematography, certainly. Designed in a palette of foggy gray tones, ranging from white smoke to dark charcoal, and with the only dashes of color coming from flushed skin, spilled blood and candle flames, the story of a warrior and his body double (both played by Deng Chao) is a gorgeous thing to behold — all visual yin and yang, to echo the theme of duality.

And its fight sequences, which involve weaponized umbrellas that fire off spinning blades when twirled, are masterpieces of fight choreography and editing — as well as subtext. The contrast of the enemy’s hard masculine blades and arrows and the heroes’ use of a traditionally “feminine” accoutrement, which acts as both a defensive shield and an offensive projectile, again informs the movie’s message.

Ah, but the rest of the story.

Inspired both by Chinese ink brush painting and the tai chi symbol (more commonly known in the West as the yin-yang symbol), the story is a pretty enough meditation on the notion of twinning and opposites — light/dark, male/female, good/evil — but it sometimes gets lost in the visuals, forgetting that we have to care about its characters to stay with it.

Those characters include, in addition to the aforementioned warrior — gravely wounded and in hiding as the story opens — and his healthy alter ego; that warrior’s wife (Sun Li), who is falling in love with her husband’s “shadow”; their young and dissolute king (Zheng Kai); and the ruler of an enemy people (Hu Jun), who presides over a contested city and a precarious truce between the two tribes.


Sun Li in “Shadow.” (BAIXIAOYAN/Well Go USA Entertainment)

Yes, it’s complicated. And it takes a good half-hour before you will start to sort out who’s who and what’s what. That’s round about the point when the film introduces its first fight scene — which, let’s face it, is probably why a lot of you will buy a ticket. Although “The Great Wall” was criticized for emphasizing action over character, Zhang has long been known for telling stories about women. And while there are a couple of strong female characters here, despite the leitmotif of duality, “Shadow” is more decisively a man’s movie.

Make that men. Deng delivers two strong, well-rounded performances as a dying hero and his rising protegee/slave, even if there is an air of the fairy tale to the action. Zhang and his co-writer, Li Wei, for instance, frequently forgo names, referring to characters as “Commander” and “Madam” in a narrative that often feels like it’s populated by two-dimensional types instead of real people.

In the end, “Shadow” suffers from a kind of shallow narcissism. Yes, it’s beautiful. Sure, it’s hard to take your eyes off it, with all the slow-motion action, enhanced by an ever-present, photogenic drizzle. But in an ironic departure from the theme of the balance, it too often emphasizes style over substance.

Unrated. At area theaters. Contains action and violence. In Mandarin with subtitles. 116 minutes.