Directed by Ann Hu. Starring Li Yusheng, Liu Peiqi, Xing Yufei, Xia Yu, Jared Harris. (2001, PG, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 4, 2001
Shadow Magic imagines a time before movies, a time when people had their initial encounters with moving pictures, when living culture was first witnessed on the screen and reflected back to audiences near and far. The year is 1902 and the place is Beijing. Into this setting stumbles Raymond Wallace (Harris), a pioneering British entrepreneur who seeks to make a go of a little motion picture parlor called Shadow Magic. He sets up shop on a dusty Beijing street and tries to lure in the Chinese locals to watch his little Lumière Brothers' shorts. Gravitating immediately to Wallace is Liu (Xia Yu), a young photographer's assistant who has an affinity for modern gizmos and gadgets. When first we see Liu he is tinkering with a discarded Victrola and proposing to his boss that they use it in the photography shop because the novelty of the contraption and the strange Western tunes it churns out would surely bring smiles to the faces of their portrait subjects. Berated by his boss for his dangerous fascination with all things Western, Liu ultimately uses his natural talent for marketing and showmanship to Shadow Magic. Ann Hu's movie is a sweet evocation of a world on the verge of change. The motion pictures are but a herald of those changes, but the ways in which they will change peoples' lives are yet to be imagined. Distrustful of foreigners, especially during these years immediately following the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese are wary of Wallace and his magic contraption. The film is structured as a confrontation between the old and the new, and while Hu's sympathies are obviously with the newfangled motion pictures, she treats the protectors of the old culture with reasonable compassion and understanding. The ancient operatic art practiced by Lord Tan (Li Yusheng) is in particular jeopardy when vying for the citizenry's entertainment yen. Another character muses that the day may be coming in which men cut off their pigtails and women unbind their feet. Added to these cultural contrasts is the conflict Liu suffers over the beckonings of his heart, which draws him to Lord Tan's daughter Ling (Xing Yufei), and causes him to reject the arranged marriage his father has brokered. All this tends to become a bit over-schematic, and the movie's third act feels especially overstuffed with conflicts, resolutions, and narrative commotion. The most delightful segments are those which observe new audiences experiencing the motion picture phenomenon. While they see only its novelty, Liu is the one who can envision its possibilities. The finale has Liu fittingly straddling China's Great Wall, the country's physical and symbolic blockade against foreign intervention. Shadow Magic is obviously a very personal project for Chinese-born Hu, who was allowed to leave the country at the start of the Cultural Revolution. The now-American-based director has fashioned a story about cultural conflict whose historical turn-of-the-century story still resonates into the next century.