Given the autobiographical impulse, it's not surprising that there is a disproportionate number of movies about filmmaking. But Shadow Magic, Ann Hu's fictional feature debut, is different from most in two ways: It's set in China; and it's about the very earliest days of cinema, some 50 years before the director's own birth. Film exhibition began around 1893 in France and quickly spread throughout Europe and over to the Americas. But the technology didn't arrive in China until after the turn of the last century.
The air of romance that surrounds the initial rough-and-tumble days of film -- the art that would quickly come to dominate the world's popular culture -- has inspired other films, like Peter Bogdanovich's underrated Nickelodeon (1976) and the Taviani brothers' Good Morning Babylon (1987), both dealing with pre-World War I American silents. Hu's film is like a more serious version of Bogdanovich's, weaving a fictional tale around the uncertain, often apocryphal facts of cinema's introduction into China. (It should be noted that Tsui Hark's 1993 Once Upon a Time in China 3 uses the same backdrop for a subplot.)
The opening shots appear to be grainy archival footage until we see them blossom into color. The setting is Beijing, 1902. Liu (Xia Yu) is the most trusted worker in Master Ren's photo shop, but he has trouble keeping his mind on the job. Despite his great loyalty to his boss, Liu has an insatiable interest in gadgets -- phonographs, magic lanterns, and motion-picture precursors such as the Zoetrope and Praxinoscope.
In English and Mandarin with English subtitles
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His interest becomes obsession when Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), an arrogant Englishman, opens up Shadow Magic, the first "movie theater" in Beijing. Wallace may have the equipment, but he is unquestionably the world's most inept showman. His enterprise fails to draw an audience until Liu steps in uninvited and acts as intermediary between the brash Anglo and the naturally hostile Chinese.
Liu parlays this into a steady job, eventually becoming partners with Wallace, who turns out to be not such a bad sort after all. But because such Western innovations are seen as cultural threats, he must keep his participation secret from his family and employers. His new success causes even deeper personal problems. Liu has fallen in love with Ling (Xing Yufei), the daughter of Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), Beijing's biggest opera star; but Shadow Magic begins to draw away audiences from Tan's theater. We know that it's only a matter of time before Liu's moonlighting at Shadow Magic will cause irreparable breaches in his world. (In fact there was a real-life Liu who shot Beijing's first theatrical film, using Master Ren's photo shop as his studio and former competitor Lord Tan as his star.)
Hu -- whom Chinese film buffs should not confuse with well-known Hong Kong art-film favorite Ann Hui -- was born in China but has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades. So it is logical that this is very much an American-style film (well, except for the lack of large-scale action scenes and adolescent sex jokes). The plot is well worked out, though there are a few minor, niggling questions, which may simply be due to translation problems: Why do Wallace and Liu's foreign-language skills seem inconsistent from scene to scene? How can Wallace not realize right away that the big money is in taking films of China to show in the West? Why -- other than to set up a rather forced scene -- does Liu wear Western clothing to Lord Tan's theater, since he knows it will generate hostility?
These are minor quibbles. Hu has crafted a charming and modest movie that successfully carries us back to a period of difficult cultural transition in mainland China. She has also created a winsomely appealing character in the awkward Liu, a dreamer whose aspirations seem painfully higher than his family, his society, and his means can imagine.