Shadow Magic epically reveals the drive for creation amidst a society fearful of change. Liu (Xia Yu) works as the key photographer in a picture studio run by Master Ren (Liu Peiqi). He is always getting himself into trouble, playing with gadgets so that he arrives late for his job. Ren is patient with him because he is talented and reminds him of his own youth.
Liu is trusted and admired, but he is also poor and arranged to marry a rich widow whom he wants nothing to do with. He only has eyes for the daughter of the local opera singer, Ling (Xing Yufei).
Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris, Happiness) waltzes in one day as Lord Tan (Li Yusheng) is singing a song in the Ren's studio. He doesn't realize he's being rude as he tries to excite the crowd with pictures that move. He is shoved off the premises, but Liu follows him, bringing Raymond an audience in exchange for learning about how the pictures move. The show is called "Shadow Magic" and the images of a moving train scare the crowds into thinking they are going to be hit. They laugh, they cry, they exclaim at what they see and come back for more.
Raymond and Liu become friends through experimentation with Raymond's equipment. Once when Raymond's light bulb blows, Liu plays with a mirror through the lens so that the show can continue. This instance gives Liu a chance to prove his talents and open the path for further learning. Raymond shows Liu how to edit and they even begin to start shooting little clips of film of the local population.
Through the technical touches comes human warmth as well. Raymond, being the liberal foreigner he is, encourages Liu to go for his dreams instead of doing what is expected of him. As Raymond doesn't understand why Liu shouldn't be affectionate with the woman he loves, Liu becomes more daring with Ling. For his part, Liu brings a humanity out of Raymond he didn't have when his wife deserted him.
The only trouble with epics of this kind is that they leave nothing to the imagination. Liu's eagerness is sympathetic enough, but each heart-wrenching scene is laid out so explicitly that when the time comes to tear up it's difficult to do so. The characters emote so much that the audience doesn't have a chance to share in their pain or joy.
The acting is likable enough all around, and none of the performers having anything to be ashamed of. The script feels overlong at two hours, even if epics have recently reached far beyond this running time. (Maybe five writers were just too many.) There are too many scenes of Liu's descent from grace, half of which could be assumed anyway. The romantic subplot, though sweetly innocent, feels thrown in to show the effects of yet another oppressive tradition in a society that is difficult enough to respect with the trials that Liu faces.
Despite these difficulties, attention never lags between the stunning cinematography, with perfect historical detail, and the fast clip at which the scenes move. This is a feel-good movie that's easy to enjoy, based on the human need to create art and document one's life. It's a journey worth taking, even if it's not very memorable.
Shadow off the wall.
Run time: 116 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 22nd November 2001
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 35 Rotten: 14
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Ann Hu
Producer: Ann Hu
Starring: Jared Harris as Raymond Wallace, Xia Yu as Liu Jinglun (Liu Zhonglun), Yufei Xing as Ling, Peiqi Liu as Master Ren (Ren JingFeng), Lu Li-Ping as Madame Ren, Jingming Wang as Old Liu, Yusheng Li as Lord Tan (Tan Xinpei), Yukui Zhang as Lao Chang, Chuang Cheng as Mi Hu, Zhongwei Zheng as Fu Guan, Qi Mu as Jewelry Tower, Qingzhuo Fang as Widow Jiang, Bin Li as Empress Ci Xi
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