Shadow Magic

Nobody knows who originally brought film to China. Thankfully, Ann Hu acknowledges this in Shadow Magic, her story detailing a possible origin of Chinese theater. It is a movie about two dreamers, and is so fanciful and full of whimsy that overlooking some of its shallower elements is forgivable. The year is 1902, and Peking is changing. People are no longer afraid that photographs will steal their souls. Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu, In the Heat of the Sun, Where Have All the Flowers Gone) works at the Feng Tai Photo Shop, where he is the chief photographer. Western culture fascinates him, and he is always tinkering with things he obtains.

Brit Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris, Lush, B. Monkey) relocated to China to make money. He opens a small theater he calls "Shadow Magic," believing that the Chinese will come in droves to watch. His chief competition is the local opera, and local anti-Western sentiment causes people to ignore him. Until Liu finds him. The two share a love for all things modern, and these 'moving pictures' awe Liu. He wants to know everything about films and how to make them and begins working for Wallace. The two begin making money and movies, much to the delight of their audiences.

Hu and her co-writers Kate Raisz and Bob McAndrew falter when they begin adding too many elements to the film. The slow battle that Wallace and Liu fight for acceptance mirrors itself in subplots about class, relationships, and race. Liu is in love with Ling (Xing Yufei), but he is poor. His father wants him to marry a wealthy widow, but she is, uh, larger. He wants Liu, who is the daughter of the local opera star. Wallace also faces racism. He must learn to make movies that appeal to the Chinese, instead of just to him. Liu also struggles with concepts of honor and filial respect. His interests in film conflict with his obligations to his father and his boss. He tries to juggle both, hiding his work at Shadow Magic from his family and employer, but this begins to wear on him.

The more serious elements take a little away from the general good feeling of Shadow Hours. The childlike joy that Wallace and Liu experience is palpable. The science of making films is almost like magic for the two. They both know that films will one day become big, and work as hard as they can to make that day possible. A light, bouncy score by Zhang Lida helps considerably in setting the tone. Hu also obtained actual footage from the period to show in Wallace's theater, lending an authentic feel to the movie. It is very likely that things did not happen they way that Hu portrays them, but it would be nice if they did.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 55 minutes, English and Chinese with English subtitles, Rated PG for brief mild language.

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