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'Shadow Magic': Cultural Revelation

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2001


"Shadow Magic" might well have been called "The First Picture Show." It's an account of how the movies came to town – though the town is in China and it's called Beijing – and what their sudden appearance wrought.

It's a compelling drama of a community suddenly facing foreign influence and trying to work out a policy that preserves tradition yet welcomes the modern. It's a love story. It's a story of heroism, talent and gumption. But best of all, it's a terrific movie all about our favorite subject, the movies. Sumptuous, warm, continually amazing, it's a completely enjoyable couple of hours at the flickers.

"Flickers" may be the operative word. In those early days of cinema, of course, the possibilities of story had yet to be seized, and all its commensurate nuances and necessities – character, editing, performance, plot – were lacking. What was present, however, was for the time being enough: movement.

Thus Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), an intrepid British entrepreneur, knows he's got a product that will sell when he gets to the colorfully rendered, teeming Chinese capital – movies of people running, jumping and standing still. That he barely speaks Chinese doesn't faze him in the least; that he fails utterly to understand the delicate mesh of manner and custom that undergirds Chinese society fazes him even less. He is formidably armed with a weapon more powerful than the Krupp artillery shell: his own sense of Western superiority. That's his de facto leverage to become a millionaire.

He opens a picture palace, called Shadow Magic.

Nobody comes.

Enter, accidentally, Liu Jinglun (charming Xia Yu), he of the shaved skull, the ever-present smile, the diffident, deferential mien and the three-foot queue. Liu is exactly what Raymond never expected: a heathen Chinese with a first-class film genius. For the reversal at the heart of "Shadow Magic" is that it's Liu who turns out to be Merton of the Movies and the Westerner who's always a little slow, a little dumb, a little daft.

Liu's imagination is seized immediately, as was D.W. Griffith's, or Stanley Kubrick's, or Steven Spielberg's. He sees in that river of light flickering away in the dark a river of possibility, of drama, of travel, of humor. (The sheer love of movies is one of the great pleasures of this film, just as in "Cinema Paradiso.") Liu just has the compleat movie talent: He knows how to exhibit pictures to his own people, he has a quick, instinctive gift for understanding the physics of photography and projection, he sees instantaneously both the pleasure and the profit that the new form can generate. He has the imagination to understand that at some point new movies will be necessary and he agitates his partner to begin filming them.

The drama is based on the arrival of the first Western moviemakers in China at the turn of the last century. But, fact-based or not, it has a familiar ring, and it should. It's weirdly the same story as the ones about all those handsome Iowa girls who headed to Tinseltown in the '30s to become stars; so, too, must Liu leave behind his culture and strike out anew.

He must part with his revered father, his revered employer (the photographer Master Ren, played by Liu Peiqi, who naturally fears pictures that move), his engagement (arranged) to a wealthy widow, and his secret love, the opera singer Lord Tan's beautiful daughter Ling (Xing Yufei). He must part with the very concept of "revered," for in the topsy-turvy world of movies, there's no class structure, no elaborate ritual of protocol, but only the triumph of the genius-hustlers who invented the business. He must, as all of players in that game do, reinvent himself; he throws in finally with the Westerner at the cost of the Easterners. And, as will always occur, consequences ensue.

Though exotic in locale and era, underneath this is "Sunset Boulevard" with Yu in the Bill Holden role or "A Star Is Born" with Yu in the Garland-Streisand role. Meanwhile the huckster Wallace, like hucksters the world over, truly believes that he is offering Liu the best possible world, when at the same time he's clearly helping himself even more.

Ann Hu, the director, fills her frame with detail and imagery – the film, financed by a Taiwanese company, was shot in Beijing – and in certain ways the movie reflects her own life. She's mainland-born but was one of the first students permitted out of the country after the Cultural Revolution; she ended up a highly successful commodities trader before she began a filmmaking career. So a film that's about characters from different cultures struggling to accommodate each other must be a subject close to her heart; she's been on both sides of the divide.

She unites them brilliantly in this smart, winning film.

"Shadow Magic" (115 minutes) is rated PG.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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