Friday April 6, 2001
Ann Hu's "Shadow Magic" evokes the dawn of cinema in China with muchcharm, humor and subtlety.
The identities of the few Westerners who brought motion pictures to China at the turn of the last century are unknown today, but at least one of them enabled Liu Jinglun, a young Beijing photographer, to make the first Chinese film in 1905. (Unfortunately, no Chinese films are known to exist earlier than 1911.)
The story Hu and her writers tell so engagingly deals with the clash between tradition and innovation, East and West, love and duty. It is, above all, about a young man who discovers he is too consumed by his dream not to pursue it, whatever the costs.
As a period piece it is pretty good, although its sets are obviously just that, and it boasts a lovely score and richly hued images.
The filmmakers have invented a young man from the United Kingdom, Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), desperate to regain the family he lost back home by his inability to support them. He has come all the way to Beijing in 1902 to introduce the flickers to China with the hopes of making his fortune.
It is not the most propitious moment. With the Boxer Rebellion only three years in the past, most Chinese, in the last gasp of the reactionary, xenophobic Qing Dynasty, look askance at "foreign devils," particularly those bearing a contraption as seemingly magical as a movie projector/camera.
As it happens, Wallace arrives at the Feng Tai Photo Shop just as its chief photographer, Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), is preparing to shoot portraits of Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), the city's most illustrious opera star. Harris winds up being thrown out on orders from the shop's formal and conservative proprietor, Master Ren (Liu Peiqi).
However, young Liu's interest is piqued, although Wallace and Liu, who speaks a little English, must overcome mutual mistrust before becoming friends and colleagues. Wallace attracts zero customers to his small storefront theater until Liu pitches in and drums up business.
Those first patrons are overcome with awe, excitement, perplexity and sometimes fear at watching the Lumiere brothers' shorts that Wallace has brought with him that chronicle everyday life in France.
To be sure, what the Chinese have dubbed "shadow magic" soon catches on, even taking away business from Lord Tan's large and elaborate theater.
Liu, alas, cannot share Wallace's unalloyed delight. In order to help out Wallace, Liu is having to come up with excuses for his increasing absences at the photo shop. He is also being pressured by his father and especially Master Ren to submit to an arranged marriage with a rich, plump widow at least 15 years his senior.
Not making matters easier, Liu is falling in love with Lord Tan's pretty daughter Ling (Xing Yufei), who is also attracted to him. Just as Liu sees his life beset with wondrous possibilities both professional and personal, obligations bear down on him from all sides.
Yet how can Liu resist pursuing his dream of enabling the Chinese people to see themselves up on a movie screen? The question is not so much if Liu will take the leap into the future but when, and what price he will have to pay.
It's easy for Westerners to agree with Liu's remark to Ling about the apparatus Wallace has brought with him: "They're wonderful inventions. Why should we care where they came from?" But as backward as much of Imperial China's official thinking appeared at that time, it's worth recalling that China had by then been subjected to decades of much foreign exploitation and intervention.
While China often may have been ineffective or misguided in its dealings with the West, it is understandable that many Chinese would regard all things Western with suspicion or fear.
Beneath a lighthearted, even whimsical surface, "Shadow Magic" touches upon various and increasing tensions in Chinese society that would soon erupt with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty not long after the death of the Empress Dowager in 1908.
Harris and Xia are a winning team, and their supporting cast is equally pleasing.
Li Yousheng's Lord Tan (who really existed) is a magnificent old trouper, and as dismissive as he is of the flickers, it's easy to sense that he, like Sarah Bernhardt, might eventually come around to seeing the movies as his one chance at immortality.
Shadow Magic, 2001. PG, for brief mild language. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director-producer Ann Hu. Co-producers Sandra Schulberg, Zhang Xia, Lee You-Ning, Cheng Zheng. Executive producers Charles Xue,, Steve Chang, Chiu Shun-Ching,, Han Sanping, Ulrich Felsberg, Eitan Hakami, Katia Milani. Writers Huang Dan, Tang Louyi, Kate Raisz, Bob McAndrew, Ann Hu. Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber. Editors Keith Reamer, John Gilroy. Costumes Huang Bao Rong. Production designer Wang Jixian. In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Jared Harris as Raymond Wallace. Xia Yu as Liu Jinglun. Xing Yufei as Ling. Liu Peiqi as Master Ren.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times