Shadow Magic
directed by Ann Hui
(Sony Picture Classics, 2001)

Shadow Magic, based on historical events, imaginatively dramatizes the arrival of motion pictures (hand-cranked, black and white, soundless cameras and projectors) in China in 1902. The Englishman Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), seeking to make his fortune, arrives in Beijing with a film camera, a projector and a few dozen shorts (most by the Lumiere Brothers).

His Shadow Magic Theater fails at first to attract the custom of the suspicious local Chinese people -- with the exception of Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), a portrait photographer's assistant who finds moving pictures enthralling.

Liu's fascination with the newfangled form of entertainment reflects his overall enthusiasm for new technology, for he possesses one of the only phonographs in Beijing, a device that will prove quite useful later. Liu's interest in the mechanics of moving pictures swiftly burgeons into a visionary comprehension of the metaphysical and political potential of cinema -- for it can serve not only as a means for gathering images from afar but also as a tool for self-reflection.

Liu's efforts to attract audiences to the Shadow Magic shows prove so successful that Wallace makes him his partner, an involvement viewed as a betrayal by Liu's boss and mentor Master Ren (Liu Peiqi), his father (Wang Jingming), who has arranged for him to marry a wealthy widow, and Ling (Xiu Yufei), the young woman he actually loves, daughter of the famous and beloved traditional Chinese opera star Lord Tan (Li Yusheng). In an ironic complication, Wallace advises Liu that only by making history as China's first filmmaker can he hope to win Ling -- an assertion that proves correct.

Shadow Magic's plot, built around the tension between old and new, Western and Chinese, follows Liu's turmoil over wanting to work with Wallace and dreaming of marrying Ling, yet, at the same time, also desiring to be an obedient son and a loyal employee. How this dilemma gets resolved provides emotional excitement that enhances the film's true subject, the power of movies themselves -- demonstrated in the best scenes which take place in the dark of Wallace's ramshackle theater and at an evening screening he and Liu give as part of the birthday celebration for the Empress Dowager. Cutting back and forth from screen to audience, director Hu permits us to see both the flickering images of babies, acrobats and trains and the spell cast by these images (fascinating in and of themselves for they are mostly rare archival footage from this early time period in movie history). At the climax comes the best such moment, when Liu shows the film he and Wallace shot locally in and around Beijing, and at the sight of themselves on screen, the audience goes wild, their reactions of wonderment and amusement being quite infectious and affecting. Here the raison d'Étre of Shadow Magic comes clear, its central argument being that cinema functions not as a demonic piece of Western trickery nor as an unambiguous agent of progress, but rather it serves as a way of looking at the world and of infusing its most quotidian aspects with magic.

To make the magic happen in Shadow Magic to such dazzling effect, the production was shot at the Beijing Film Studios where the sets, costumes and nearby locations (such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall) were used to create the fascinating and colorful Chinese historical period cultural milieu. Superb cinematography, lovely music and excellent performances combine together to cast a spell of wonderment, pulling off the delightful and ingenious trick of getting jaded modern viewers to feel as if they were witnessing cinema for the first time.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001

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