Projections - Movie Reviews

Shadow Magic

Shadow Magic

Evoking the pioneer spirit of film making, Shadow Magic is a nicely spliced nostalgic trip back to 1905 Beijing that recalls some of the joys of what movies can do like the seminal Cinema Paradiso.  Director Ann Hu doesn't deliver the polished effort of Giuseppe Tornatore in terms of how emotional drive results from a diagrammed story and characterizations surrounding the influence of western culture on Chinese traditions.  Yet, it has warm moments from what it can do for the ocular nerve, like the reactions of many from what is projected.

The backdrop provided by Hu, who collaborated on the screenplay, sees China with remorse towards westerners after the Boxer Rebellion and European occupation of Beijing.  So, when British expatriate Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris of VH1's Two of Us) interrupts a photo session of a revered Chinese opera star, Lord Tan (Li Yusheng) with the promotion of his new "moving pictures", he's ostracized by the lovers of true Chinese art.  But Liu Jing Lun (Xia Yu) who is first seen trying to fix a broken Victrola will be instrumental in this fairly broad clash of eastern philosophy versus western invention.

Hu, a New York-based Chinese-American film-maker, has a good lead in Yu, who holds his own and then some, especially when opposite Harris who has fashioned memorable portrayals in independent movies like Happiness and I Shot Andy Warhol.  Some initial troubles between Liu and Raymond are quelled as the chief still lenser for the Feng Tai Photo Shop owned by Master Ren (Liu Peiqi) is quickly sold on the foreigner's Shadow Magic as he sees what motion picture art can do with something that's perceived as a trick.

Liu wants a job with Raymond who can't dismiss the dissolute photographer's enthusiasm for how people and their lives can be enlarged for entertainment.  How Shadow Magic branches out from the collaboration between these two isn't very complex in terms of narrative or character as Liu's life will forever be changed as he feels he is nobody without Wallace's movie making.

A lovely young woman he's enamored with, Ling (Xing Yufei), the daughter of Lord Tan, thinks this western novelty is a gimmick, and other opera connoisseurs and some elders feel that it's a means of using the people and dissuading them from Lord Tan's performances.  Liu's time away from the shop with his "new" job gets him in trouble with Master Ren and his father, Old Liu (Wang Jingming), who has his son arranged to be married to a wealthy widow (Fang Qingzhuo).

Eventually, after things escalate for the worse after one of their films at the Royal Palace for the Empress Dowager who is captivated like the rest of the audience, Liu and Raymond would appear to be no more.  But Liu makes the most of a package that had scenes shot from everyday Beijing life and Yu keeps Shadow Magic from being opaque with his engaging affections.

Shadow Magic falls short of films like The Wedding Banquet or Farewell My Concubine as this co-produced venture of Taiwan and the mainland tries to do too much considering its elements.  Harris isn't as affecting as Yu, impressing the most during one of his home movies, but Yusheng, Peiqi, and Jingmeng are convincing through stature, subtlety, and range, respectively.

Hu keeps things from getting too maudlin and she has a relaxed quality as some exquisite production designs and sumptuous photography from Nancy Schreiber from the street performances in striking primary hues to the wondrous vistas of the Great Wall.  Though it doesn't attain the poignancy of The King of Masks, Shadow Magic exudes a bright fascination that shines from the making of motion pictures which would have had many more boundaries to cross.

Shadow Magic