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With: Jared Harris, Xia Yu, Xing Yufei, Liu Peiqi, Lu Liping (Madame Ren), Li Yusheng, Wang Jingming
Written by: Ann Hu, Chen Yixiong, Huang Dan, Liu Huaizhuo, Bob McAndrew, Kate Raisz, Tang Louyi, Zuo Shiqiang
Directed by: Ann Hu
MPAA Rating: PG for brief mild language
Language: English, Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 116
Date: 09/08/2000

Shadow Magic (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Kinescope Memories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'msurprised Miramax didn't pick up the new Shadow Magic for distributionbefore Sony Pictures Classics did. It has their kind of sanitized, pre-fabentertainment written all over it. It comes up with a decent idea, to use mistymemories of the cinema itself, but glues them to an icky sentimental story. IfThomas Edison and the other inventors of cinema had lived to see their creationwasted on the likes of Shadow Magic, they would never stop vomiting.

Shadow Magic is based on a somewhat true story, about a Westerner (Jarred Harris) who brings the first motion pictures to China during the turn of the century. Liu (Xia Yu) is a free-thinking photographer's assistant who is obsessed with Western gadgets like the record player. He views the "shadow magic" machine, showing some of the early Lumiere brothers one-reelers, and it charms him the same way it continues to charm so many of us.

This is where the story, by director Ann Hu and four others, turns to Jell-O. At the same time the cinema makes its debut in Peking, a great opera star Lord Tan (Li Yusheng) arrives, with his beautiful daughter Ling (Xing Yufei) in tow. See where this is going? Liu falls head over heels for Ling, but his passion for the new technology clashes with Ling's father's traditional entertainment. Moreover, the Englishman Raymond Wallace is presented as a stereotypical scruffy drunk who can't operate the machine without Liu's help.

Telling a hundred-year old story is not a problem, especially when your story is set a hundred years ago. But Hu and her crew deliver the story as if they were pouring Half-and-Half all over a box of cream puffs. They fail to take into account that we have any intelligence at all�that we may have actually seen a few movies in our lifetimes. Every detail is slathered onto the screen in drippy, gooey gobs without a moment for us to breathe or fire up any of our own brainwaves.

In other words, Shadow Magic makes Cinema Paradiso (1989) look like an obtuse Antonioni masterpiece.

I'm guessing that Hu simply hoped to win over her audience with the "shadow magic" device itself and the stunned, ecstatic looks on the people's faces who view it for the first time. And, consarn it, she was right. Despite all its sentimental clobbering, Shadow Magic does manage to grasp onto the mystery of why cinema is so seductive to so many of us, and has been for 100 years. Liu looks physically changed after running the movie projector for the first time; none of his other gadgets seem as interesting anymore. He's gone onto a higher plane of imagination.

For this reason alone, I'm giving Shadow Magic a passing grade. Even I can be suckered into the feel-good mire.

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