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Shadow Magic

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Shadow Magic

Starring: Jared Harris, Lu Liping
Director: Ann Hu
Rated: PG
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: April 2001
Genres: Drama, Foreign

*Also starring: Lu Peiqi, Xia Yu, Xing Yufei, Li Yusheng

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When I was a kid, the first time I heard the juke box in the local coffee house, some song or other of Frank Sinatra's was on. Sinatra sounded happy, so I told my mom to ask the owner to unlock the back of the machine so that I could see the guy who sounded so good. The owner smiled as though he heard the request a hundred times before, and opened the back of the unit. I looked in and was depressed for days. Despite the shattering of my illusions, when I saw my first movie--I think it starred either Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, can't recall--I was sure that the characters were acting out their little story behind the big white screen--didn't you? I never did get to look there but had to take my dad's word that I would only get depressed once again.

So there...those experiences were not for nought because as I watched the charming Chinese movie (which won their equivalent of the Oscar for best picture), "Shadow Magic," I could appreciate the fascination that the people of that Asian nation felt in 1902 when they heard a phonograph for the first time, the year the events of the story took place. And when I watched the absolutely astounded faces on these simultaneously bemused and amused folks in the makeshift theater in what was then called Peking, my mind wandered back to those happy days of my childhood when everything in the world was new, fresh, exciting.

"Shadow Magic" is the creation of Ann Hu, who was allowed to leave mainland China after the so-called Cultural Revolution, came to the U.S. in 1979 for her Business Administration degree from NYU, was a success trading commodities and used the capital she acquired to finance films. (She is currently working on "Red Guards," a doc about the Cultural Revolution with interviews never before seen in the West.)

"Shadow Magic" takes as its implicit theme the idea that while East is East and West is West, the twain can sometimes meet--if the players in the human drama have enough patience to work out particular differences in their traditions. The movie is beautifully photographed, emphasizing a rich array of costumes, courtesy of the well- stocked Beijing Film Studio. The story deals with several conflicts: the traditions of the East vs. the technology of the West; the clash between believers of arranged marriages and those who prefer to choose their own life's partners; the competition between individuals whose prestige and income come from years of pleasing their audience and others whose prestige and income depend on the success of new forms of diversion. The romantic tension is intriguing; the partnership between a bright and therefore erratic worker and a disappointed British expatriate promotes hope in today's troubled times.

The central character, Liu (Xia Yu), works for a photographer's studio under the proprietorship of Master Ren (Liu Peiqi), but has no rigid regard for the state of current technology. Always experimenting, particularly with gadgets created in the West, he draws the contempt of some around him while playing a Caruso record on a Victrola. "Not refined like our own music," sniffs Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), who has a large following for his brilliantly-costumed performances in Chinese opera but who is evidently threatened by all new technology. Liu, concerned about criticism but not ready to give up his tinkering, has a thing for Tan's attractive daughter, Ling (Xing Yufei), but Liu's dad wants him to hitch up with a rich widow--who looks like the usual older-woman butt of Gilbert and Sullivan's satires. When the unhappily divorced Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) arrives in Peking hoping to make it big financially with his motion picture projector (which no one in China had ever seen before)-- presuming a large audience would pay to see his shadow magic on the screen of a makeshift movie house--he and Liu hit it off, form a partnership, and fight the Luddites who want to kick them both out of their lives.

While the two entrepreneurs struggle to attract an audience propagandized against purported Western cultural imperialism, they effect changes on each other. Wallace nudges his Asian pal to go for it, to make a big play for the woman of his dreams and to shuck off the old ways years before a revolution against the Manchu Dynasty would free him and millions of others from pigtails and bound feet. For his part, Liu makes a human being out of a westerner whose failed marriage has made him hard and cynical and sometimes inebriated.

The most amusing scene during the two hours of stunning cinematography--which embraces a most enjoyable history lesson--occurs when a fairly large group of Chinese witness their first film, a silent, of course, given riotous dimensions when two of the stand-up comedians who have been photographed by Liu and Wallace get up from their seats in the audience and fill in the dialogue that they had pursued while before the lens. I like the way Wallace seduced the attention of the would-be actors by telling one of them that one hundred years from now, he would appear before an audience (in 2002) without having aged a day although he would be 170 years old. Now, why couldn't he have seduced Lord Tan in a similar way, but saying that the movies would expose his operative talents to the whole nation if not the world?

The pace is brisk, the acting convincing, and here's one movie written by five scripters that doesn't look as though it were written by a committee. When Wallace looks at the Great Wall (which can be seen and walked, I believe, just 20 miles outside Beijing) and tells the folks that they don't need to keep invaders out but should be welcoming new ideas in, you can't help thinking of the nut cases of the world today like the Taliban who are threatened by big stone statues that are alien to their belief. All in all, a thrilling experience, a history lesson for those who don't like history as well as those who are intrigued by the past.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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