Shadow Magic

The backdrop of this handsome film from the Chinese director Anna Hu is so interesting it's a shame that it has to be burdened with such a tepid plot. The film, set in Imperial Peking in 1902, is a fictionalized account of how foreign traveling cameramen-showmen first brought motion pictures to China, and how the Feng Tai Photo Shop eventually came to produce...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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The backdrop of this handsome film from the Chinese director Anna Hu is so interesting it's a shame that it has to be burdened with such a tepid plot. The film, set in Imperial Peking in 1902, is a fictionalized account of how foreign traveling cameramen-showmen first brought motion pictures to China, and how the Feng Tai Photo Shop eventually came to produce China's first films. Abandoned by his wife and children back home in England, Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) arrives in turn-of-the-century Peking hoping to make his fortune with a sure-fire attraction: moving pictures. Raymond sets up shop in a dusty old store front under a banner promising "Shadow Magic," but what he doesn't count on is how deeply devoted his prospective audiences are to traditional forms of entertainment, namely the Peking Opera and its imperious star, Lord Tan (Li Yusheng). Liu (Xia Yu), a young photographer at the Feng Tai Photo Shop, however, is intrigued, and talks Wallace into a free demonstration; when the images spring to life (Wallace's collection luckily includes the cream of the early Lumiere films), Liu sees the future. He cadges a job out of Wallace, but as the audience for this new form of Western entertainment grows, the receipts for the Peking Opera start to shrink, and Liu is soon faced with choosing between hallowed tradition and the future. Hu works marvels on a limited budget, and she manages to capture that mixture of wonder, terror and glee that must have filled audiences seeing pictures move for the very first time. Unfortunately, Hu and her army of co-writers saddle the story with a tired romantic subplot — Liu falls in love with Lord Tan's daughter Ling (Xing Yufei), which further complicates his dedication to the new medium — and fail to develop meaningful characters. Harris fares worst: He tries to cram as much personality as one can into a thick cockney accent, but Wallace remains as insubstantial as his images.

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  • Released: 2001
  • Rating: PG
  • Review: The backdrop of this handsome film from the Chinese director Anna Hu is so interesting it's a shame that it has to be burdened with such a tepid plot. The film, set in Imperial Peking in 1902, is a fictionalized account of how foreign traveling cameramen-s… (more)

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