Shadow Magic

(Ann Hu, China/Germany, 2000)


Not so long ago, journalists invented a term to describe those international co-productions mixing actors of different nationalities in lush, leaden costume dramas: Europuddings. Those same journalists will be falling over themselves to coin a new word for the species of Asian-American folly initiated by Ann Hu's Shadow Magic.

Wallace (Jared Harris), a British entrepreneur fleeing from the wreckage of his marriage, sets up camp in Peking, 1902. His attempts to entice the locals with the 'shadow magic' of the new technology of motion pictures hit a brick wall until the eager and forward-thinking Liu (Xia Yu) joins in the venture.

This is a painfully obvious East-meets-West allegory, as many Asian-American co-productions are bound to be for the next decade or so. While Wallace brings the slightly illicit pleasures of Western modernity and romance to the folk of Peking, Liu ensures that his people finally move beyond imperialist, foreign entertainment and learn to like seeing themselves on screen.

I have yet to see a truly good movie about the early days of cinema. All efforts so far tend to recycle the same cute, hackneyed, often apocryphal anecdotes about the idealism of the first showmen and the innocence of the first audiences.

So, in Shadow Magic viewers dodge from what they believe is a real train hurtling off the screen, stand-up comedians provide a running commentary on the silent images, elderly citizens complain that cameras steal the soul of their subjects, and Wallace demonstrates the art of film editing to an astonished Liu.

Sentimentality is the keynote here (Zhang Lida's score even seems to allude to the syrupy strains of Cinema Paradiso [1988]). Hu reinforces the rose-coloured picture of cinema's birth with an anodyne love story involving commoner Liu and the aristocratic Ling (Xing Yufei), plus a predictable rapprochement between the new art of film and the old art of opera represented by Ling's father, Lord Tan (Li Yusheng). The magic of the movies, it seems, reconciles every social division. If only.

© Adrian Martin November 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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