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  Beijing Scene

The Dark Side of Shadow Magic
The Last Emperor meets Cinema Paradiso in director Ann Hu's magical, historically-challenged tale of China's first film.

In our media-saturated world - where advertisements keep track of how many times you view them, the arts sections of well-respected newspapers speak of performers as "software," and the middle of the Sahara is just a few mouse-clicks away from free, high-resolution pornography - it's hard to get excited about pictures that move.

With director Ann Hu's new film Shadow Magic, however, we are transported back to the pre-AOL Empire days of 1902 Beijing, where moving pictures were not only considered a devilish "foreign trick," but, according to Hu's vision, a fearsome technology that threatened to single-handedly destroy Chinese culture. (This was a feat, of course, that would only be accomplished much later by the combined forces of Baywatch, Starbucks, and the Big Mac Happy Meal).

Shadow Magic's fictionalized account of the characters and events which led to the making of the first Chinese film - the Beijing Opera classic Dingjun Mountain - is a visual treat that richly portrays turn-of-the-century Beijing and the kinky clash of a modernizing west and a stubbornly retro east. Unfortunately, no amount of visual magic can pull the narrative rabbit out of Shadow Magic's hat. Director and co-writer Hu eschews telling the story of the making of China's first film in favor of a clich-ridden soap opera spiced up with generous helpings of plot-points, characters and soundtrack bites from Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore's classic ode to a young man's passion for projectors and blondes.

Liu Jinglun (played by In the Heat of the Sun's criminally-talented Xia Yu) is the young chief photographer of the Feng Tai Photo Shop, where the upper echelons of Beijing society have their souls stolen for a reasonable fee. When down-on-his luck British profiteer Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris, I Shot Andy Warhol), barges in trying to pitch Beijing's first nickelodeon ("five-cent theater"), Feng Tai boss Master Ren promptly gives him the boot, while Beijing Opera star Lord Tan smells the beginning of the end in the newfangled "barbarian" technology. But Liu is hooked.

Shadow Magic's story begins two years after the Boxer Rebellion was brutally crushed by western expeditionary forces and a weak-willed Qing court that reneged on its support of the anti-foreigner Boxers faster than you can say "Bay of Pigs." In the wake of staggering remunerations and the humiliation of China's government - including the insult of having GI Joes squatting in the Forbidden City for an entire year - Beijingers weren't exactly eager to hear the West's latest bright new idea. (Force-fed Christianity and opium were fun enough, thank you very much.)

Against the backdrop of this xenophobic zeitgeist, the insatiably curious, mechanically-minded young Liu is torn between loyalty to tradition and the wondrous new Western technology of Wallace's "magic shadows." Liu's conflict, unfortunately, is something of a no-brainer: he must choose between an arranged marriage to an old, obese, ugly widow (cleverly named "Widow Jiang") whom he doesn't want to marry - because, well, she's old, obese, and no fun to look at - and the promise of making it big in the film business with Wallace.

But Liu's inner tug-of-war between the weight of filial duty and the glitter of showbiz is further complicated by the fact that he's also madly in love with Ling, the cinema-phobic Lord Tan's adoptive daughter, an obsequious Gong Li look-alike who spends most of the film "obsequiating" (a film-acting technique taught at the Beijing Film Academy which involves projecting powerless beauty under a smoldering veneer of sexual repression by never looking anyone in the eye, keeping one's neck immobile, and pouting a lot). If Liu betrays family and tradition, he gets to make films instead of marrying the fat, old Widow Jiang, but will also offend the Luddite Lord Tan, and ruin any chance of winning Ling's hand in marriage - which, if you'll remember from the previous paragraph, wasn't a possibility in the first place.

Writer/director Hu breaks one of Aristotle's fundamental principles of storytelling: Comprehending the hero's central dilemma should not require a degree in differential calculus. So, in order to solve this narrative snafu, Hu does what any astute NYU Film School graduate is trained to do: engineer a gratuitous explosion.

When Wallace is invited to put on a private screening for the Empress Dowager's birthday celebration, the show is a big hit with the fun-loving Cixi until the film projector explodes, crippling Liu, and nearly burning down the Imperial Palace. The enraged Cixi has Wallace banished from China and spares Liu's life only when Lord Tan intervenes.

Months later, when all seems lost for the gimpy Liu - yet another hapless victim of exploding hand-cranked film projectors - a package arrives in the mail from Wallace containing a surprise gift that will alter Liu and China's cinematic destiny: the strips of film he and Wallace shot of local Chinese characters and scenes. (This clever narrative device wouldn't have echoed Cinema Paradiso's memorable finale so obviously had composer Zhang Lida's bald-faced appropriation of Ennio Morricone's soundtrack not made it so difficult to ignore.)

Splicing together the express-mailed strips of film, Liu revives the defunct Shadow Magic theater as China's first blockbuster documentary wows local audiences. Liu then easily earns Master Ren and Lord Tan's approval of the new technology, because, we must assume, they didn't fear the technology itself or it's potential to outflank traditional forms of culture; they were just presciently aware of the future threat that Bruce Willis and Leonardo DiCaprio would pose to the domestic box office, and are duly relieved once they realized Chinese faces can be filmed too.

In a final and unsubtle homage to Cinema Paradiso, Liu not only wins Ling's heart, but does so as any self-respecting male filmmaker would have it: in the projection booth, with a reel of film in one hand and a shapely young woman in the other.

Despite an unnecessarily clichéd story line, there is much to recommend Shadow Magic. The cast itself is one of the strongest co-production ensembles assembled since The Last Emperor. In the roles of Master and Madame Ren, Liu Peiqi (Ermo) and Lu Liping (Blue Kite), although painfully under-utilized in the film, demonstrate why they are two of their generation's finest actors and lend the film an imprimatur of authenticity that is difficult to underestimate. If only they'd had more room to perform.

As the stuffy, legend-in-his-own-time Lord Tan, Li Yusheng, himself one of China's elder statesmen of Beijing Opera, gives vibrancy to the traditional art form of which he is an undisputed master. And it is in the character of Lord Tan (who later becomes the star of China's first movie) that we sense the biggest promise of Hu's story. Beijing Opera, a frenetically dynamic art form, interweaves sound and image, motion and music with an intensity that would leave a modern action hero gasping for air. During several delightful scenes where Li struts his stuff, the traditionalist in each of us finds it easy to share Lord Tan's wariness of a circus gadget that captures images in motion, but records neither color nor sound.

And, in stark contrast to what was technically possible in the early days of silent movies, Shadow Magic's recreation of Beijing in 1902 - from wardrobe, to set design, props, and extras - is without question quite spectacular. In addition to an artful, disciplined use of archival film footage of Old Beijing, we are offered a visual introduction to the early mechanics of filmmaking, including such archeological treats as a Praxinoscope, a device invented in 1877 which showed a sequence of images projected by mirrors on a revolving drum. Another early cinema artifact that is almost meaningless to MTV-addled minds is the initial sense of wonder and fear with which early audiences - Chinese and western alike - reacted to moving images.

And it is just that universal sense of wonder that makes the failure of Shadow Magic's story so disappointing. The intuitive emotional response to moving images projected on a flat screen was as cross-culturally powerful as cave paintings, sex or the roar of a thunderclap. Although the fictional Raymond Wallace is depicted as a romantic evangelist of the empowering potential of movies, this particular import was radically different from Christianity and opium; the Chinese - one of the most visually sophisticated cultures in history - must have "got the picture" without much converting from foreigners.

In fact, there was no single foreign figure like Raymond Wallace who mentored the Chinese into a realization of the possibilities of film. Foreigners introduced the technology and business of film production and exhibition to China, but Wallace's role in Shadow Magic (and the painfully awkward English dialogue associated with his character) is more a reflection of present-day Chinese co-production financing, which requires a reasonably famous non-Chinese actor to secure foreign investment, and find a "cross-over" audience. (Thankfully, Hu didn't opt for the almost de rigueur co-production practice of forcing a Caucasian-Chinese love subplot into the mix.)

And despite a blunt-edged message about the need for China to open up to new ideas, it is very unlikely that successful entrepreneurs and artists like Master Ren and Lord Tan were even remotely as ignorant and utterly lacking in curiosity as Shadow Magic portrays them. Indeed, Hu blithely fails to examine the process by which educated Chinese must have quickly recognized and been intrigued by the new technology's power while carefully weighing its potential threat to their worldview and livelihood.

So, in addition to leaving us hungry for the actual story of the making of Dingjun Mountain, the most disturbing aspect of Shadow Magic is the film's intellectually lax and recklessly misleading portrayal of the history of the birth of Chinese cinema. The director admitted, surprisingly, that only 10 percent of her film is based in fact, despite a marketing campaign and documentary-style credit sequences that clothe Shadow Magic in a mantle of historical veracity. If so, then the story of the making of China's first movie remains untold, and this film is indeed a wasted opportunity to describe an important junction of China's history.

Sadly, for young Chinese audiences who might mistake this film for history, and foreign audiences who almost certainly will, the unwitting irony of Shadow Magic is that director Hu has justified her own character Lord Tan's biggest fear: "It will be our own people who destroy us."

Shadow Magic is now showing in theaters throughout Beijing through Chinese New Year.

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