I’ve never seen a film lighted as uncannily as Shadow. I don’t know how Yimou and his cinematographer (Zhao Xiaoding) and art director (Ma Kwong-Wing) did it. The only way I can describe the production design is “chthonian.” Much of the film takes place in a hidden cavern, where you wouldn’t expect any dominant light source. But refracted light undulates across the screen in a preternatural play of not-quite-color. In fact, you’re never quite sure whether you’re seeing the story in chromatic color or grayscale—it’s like seeing some newly invented achromatic palette—what some people think they see in dreams, perhaps. Otherworldly lighting is photographed through billowing gowns and translucent scrolls (on which the jagged shapes of Chinese orthography unfurl). This lighting is obviously painstakingly planned and must have been headachy to produce, but the movie blessedly doesn’t give you the impression of watching mind-numbing computer-generated graphics (CGI is what keeps a movie from being a classic, based on the evidence so far). Images breathe and float across your view with fairytale loveliness, beads of rainwater on skin quiver as if alive, and everyday objects are rendered in ebony and ecru and washed-out lime.
The palette has no visible primary colors, except blood, which turns murky and opaque when it mixes with rainwater. The effect isn’t anything like a traditional black and white; it’s elegantly desaturated and, finally, revolutionary. We’re so used to standard color palettes, including the saturated hues of Technicolor or the angular chiaroscuro of noir, that this matte-like lambency seems to create a new physical law of depth perception. The creamy radiance and indiscernible sources of moving light make you feel weightless.
Aside from its art design, the film has an abundance of atavistic images that recall the work of Mizoguchi, with scenes of energy that burst forth with the strength and poetry of Kurosawa. In fact, you’re reminded of a number of past masters of Asian cinema, and the overall effect is that of a student having learned the important things from his spiritual teachers and who now proudly and justifiably speaks with an unforgettable personal voice.