[Written for Film/com]
The lovely subject of Shadow Magic is enough to carry this somewhat awkward film over its rough spots and slow patches. The setting is Peking, around the year 1902, when Chinese culture was still fairly insulated from outside influence. We meet a photographer, Liu (Xia Yu), a very curious fellow in a society that discourages his curiosity. He plays with a Victrola, he builds himself a Zoetrope — he can’t stop fiddling around with things that have no place in his world.
Quite literally stumbling into Liu’s life comes Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), a Westerner toting some very exotic equipment. Wallace’s scheme is to bring the newfangled technology of the Cinematograph — or motion picture, whatever you want to call it — to China. He is met with suspicion and hostility at every turn but, being a brash young man, sets up shop anyway.
In a dusty storefront he creates a room where he can show his moving pictures, most of which are the Lumière brothers’ little miracles of everyday events. The curious Liu, having glimpsed these silvery visions in Wallace’s theater, devotes himself to bringing in business for the entrepreneur. The film charts the first wobbly steps of cinema in China, but it is at least as interested in the friendship between the two men, with Wallace coming across as a rather stupendously enlightened white man of his era. (A modest love story between Liu and the daughter of a Peking Opera star doesn’t carry the same weight.)
Despite the best efforts of Jared Harris, who always looks as though a recent fistfight must account for his rumpled exterior, Wallace rarely seems more than a stock version of the American adventurer. It is refreshing to see a white man portrayed as something other than an evil cultural predator in a setting such as this, but Wallace doesn’t seem to have real blood flowing through his veins. And despite the backdrop of the Great Wall of China, his bonding with Liu is more thematic than real.
The director of Shadow Magic is Ann Hu (not to be confused with Boat People director Ann Hui), who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and now lives in New York. For a film shot on what must have been a low budget, Shadow Magic has a full, dense look. Most importantly for movie lovers, it has a real sense of the wonder of the early years, when the novelty of a moving image could send a roomful of viewers fleeing in fear, and then bring them back happily for more.