Watching movies can make you a better person. Or at least, it can make you a worldier, more modern, less fearful person. This is the argument made by producer-director Ann Hu’s Shadow Magic, a charming if sometimes clumsy reimagining of the days before multiplexes, Blockbusters, and Godzilla-burgers made movies mundane, rather than special events.
Specifically, the film fictionalizes the introduction of motion pictures to China as East-meets-West romance. It’s 1902 in Peking, and Liu Jinglun (Yu Xia) is a young photographer working at the Feng Tai Photo Shop. Fascinated as much by the technology as the art, Liu is regularly distracted by new inventions (the phonograph, for instance) and admonished by his employer, Master Ren (Liu Peiqi), to keep focused on business. As the film opens, Liu is taking a portrait photo of Peking’s greatest opera star, Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), and takes a fancy to Tan’s daughter Ling (Xing Yufei). Suddenly, the session is interrupted by cocky Englishman Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), who’s come to town to promote his newfangled moving picture show, “Shadow Magic.”
Jared Harris, Yu Xia, Xing Yufei, Liu Peiqi, Lu Liping
(Sony Pictures Classics)
The Chinese are affronted by these “Western tricks” and promptly remove the interloper from their studio, but Liu is intrigued. On visiting Raymond’s theater, he’s enchanted by the shorts he sees (most by the Lumiere brothers), until Raymond recovers his sense of commercial priorities and kicks him out. At this point, and rather quickly, Liu figures out—on his own—how the machine works, suggesting that he’s inventive and dedicated enough to have come up with the technology himself, and so raising the possibility that the rest of the movie might have gone on without Raymond, but then, the meeting of East and West would be rendered unnecessary.
This meeting becomes a partnership: Liu solicits skeptical customers off the street and adds phonographic accompaniment while Raymond cranks the projector. The viewers react with stereotypical wonder at the images (they run away from the train coming into the station, just as viewers famously did in France), laugh at the silly Westerners, and then inevitably identify with such silliness. Then they light upon the brilliant idea to shoot their own footage, what Liu calls “local people, local scenes.” Turns out that customers not only want to see other cultures, but they also want to imagine themselves preserved for eternity and to mug for the camera. It’s a small world after all.
As inspired as it obviously is by movies as noble concept and practice, Shadow Magic can’t seem to avoid such simplistic sentiments about the Chinese, or granting the more sophisticated, progressive attitude to the Westerner. To this end, Raymond brings/represents advances not only in technology, but also in romance. He and Liu start making money and inadvertently siphoning off Lord Tan’s audience, but this is potential disaster Liu frets because he’s actually trying to become financially worthy of marriage to Ling.
This pot turn reimagines cultural differences as generational differences: Liu’s interests make him pioneering, a disappointment to his aging father (who wants him to marry a wealthy, and of course corny-looking, widow) and a source of frustration Master Ren, who long ago married for money and is now unhappy with the arrangement, feeling put-upon his bossy wife. But if Liu has the right idea, he only able to articulate it because he’s encouraged by Raymond (“Why can’t you live your own life?”), who believes in marrying for love, despite the detail that his own much-adored wife left him back in England because he was too involved in his work.
Here the film offers still another angle on cultural differences: Raymond is teaching Liu how to be masculine (lessons include a public fistfight and stop short of the physical romance that, on one level, seems perfect for these character). True, Raymond drinks too much, he’s pushy and insensitive to social nuances, and so may not the best role model, and true, Liu is plainly inclined to new ideas even without having met Raymond. Except for the forward-looking Liu, the Chinese men are either too rigid or too soft. Liu has both the vision, sensitivity, and courage to be a real man, that is, someone with whom a Western audience can identify.