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[whitespace] 'Shadow Magic'
Learning to Love the Light: Xing Yufei and Xia Yu star as a young couple caught up in the excitement of primitive cinema.

Doubtful Shadow

'Shadow Magic' imagines what the arrival of movies was like in early China

By Richard von Busack

WHAT COULD BE more welcome, in these crisis-ridden times, than a film that counsels friendship between China and the West? The answer is a good movie about friendship between China and the West. Shadow Magic isn't well made enough to qualify as that. Set in 1902, Shadow Magic is director Ann Hu's speculation on what the arrival of movies in Imperial China might have been like. Hu and four other writers--here, no doubt, was a crisis in itself--suppose that an itinerant magic-lantern man named Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) arrived in Peking, trying to sell the idea of pictures that move to the Chinese.

Wallace sets up a small theater in the marketplace and names it "Shadow Magic." His only supporter in this scheme is Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), whose fascination with Western gadgets has already gotten him into trouble with his boss. Master Ren (Liu Peiqi), who runs the Feng Tai Photo Shop, is constantly on the verge of firing Liu, but the master likes him too much to go through with it. Moreover, Ren has interceded in the boy's life, arranging a marriage with a homely, fat-faced widow. Understandably, Liu isn't interested; besides, he's in love with Ling (Xing Yufei), the daughter of the famous and enormously pompous Peking Opera star Lord Tan (Li Yusheng). So, Liu's connection to Wallace is disapproved of by his family and his boss. It also prejudices Liu's slender case with pretty Ling, since her father fears cinema, thinking that it might put performers like him out of business.

Shadow Magic tries its best to win the affections of viewers for the early primitive days of the movies. The most likable scenes show a Chinese crowd "aahing" in admiration over early films by the Lumiere Brothers. These include L'Arroseur Arrose, or The Hoser Hosed (you could say the movies have progressed, or not, from this 1890s prank film to the career of the hoser Tom Green). Just as the lore of cinema has it, L'Arrivee d'un Train causes the audience to scream and duck when the image of the locomotive races toward them from the screen.

Aside from these memories, Hu's film doesn't advance cinematic storytelling much past the 1920s. She tends to retell parts of the story we've already seen and includes inexplicable conflict that seems forced and unlikely. Harris, whose Wallace seems like an ornery retired policeman, comes on just as needlessly strong as his father, Richard, used to in his movies. Why is Wallace so gruff when Liu first comes to help him? Why do the friends have a fistfight over a misunderstanding at the Peking Opera? Why does Liu decide to confront his master about the elder man's personal life in front of all of his workers?

Shadow Magic has some fetching street scenes and pleasant vistas of the Great Wall, but the storytelling is tediously basic. Its forced sugariness imposes on the patience of even those of us who are badly sentimental about old theaters and antique moviemaking.

Shadow Magic (PG; 115 min.), directed and written by Ann Hu and starring Jared Harris, Yia Yu and Xing Yufei, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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