"There are mountains behind the mountains," remarks one of the viewers
of the first motion picture to be shown in Peking. The images show a
Western world that is indeed far behind and beyond the Chinese mountain
ranges. With the eager help of young photographer Liu Jinlun (Xia Yu),
Englishman Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), an artistic P.T. Barnum-type
character, opens a "Shadow Magic" extravaganza to display his
combination of home movies and English travelogue. Soon these two
entrepreneurs are packing them into the old warehouse that serves as
their picture palace.
Set amidst the turmoil of a changing era as China reluctantly welcomes
the twentieth century, SHADOW MAGIC, which was "inspired by a true
story," is a good-spirited movie written and directed by Ann Hu. A
stunningly gorgeous costume drama, the movie suffers from its nearly two
hour length and its threadbare scripting. The lushness of Nancy
Schreiber's cinematography almost makes up for the thinness of the
characterizations. Liu, the central character, has a large, silly grin
plastered on his face through most of the movie. When Liu runs into
trouble, it's hard to empathize with him since he is such a stick
figure. Raymond isn't much better. He's the classic dreamer whose wife
left him for another man, which is easy to understand.
What really works in the movie, other than the authentic and nostalgic
sets, is the wonderment of seeing a new technology so entrance a
populace. The movie effectively reminds us how revolutionary some of
today's gadgets were just a century ago. The world changes more rapidly
than we would ever believe. "They say the time will come when men will
cut off their pigtails and women will unbind their feet," Liu tells his
photography studio employer, Master Ren (Lu Liping), who finds it quite
hard to believe.
SHADOW MAGIC runs 1:55. The film is in Mandarin with English subtitles
and in English. It is rated PG for brief mild language and would be
acceptable for kids old enough to read subtitles.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes