But there was a time, believe it or not, when movies didn't exist, when a still photograph was considered a wonder unto itself. With Shadow Magic, Chinese-American director Ann Hu takes us to another time and place so that we can once again appreciate what film can do for us. For in imperial China, the idea of moving pictures was a very scary dangerous thing. It represented change. It represented competition. But it also represented new possibilities.
That's what Hu has fashioned in Shadow Magic, a fictionalized account of how China was introduced to cinema at the beginning of the 20th century. Told with a poignancy that almost borders on the sappy, Shadow Magic considers the age-old dilemmas of tradition vs. change, East vs. West, duty vs. love. Hu tells her story with such an open heart, deft performances and a visual grace that it's hard to deny its humble power. If this is a love letter to Chinese cinema, we're fortunate for the translation.
Hu tells the story from the Chinese perspective but makes it accessible for the Western viewer. At first it appears that the protagonist is Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), a composite character of the unknown Westerners who introduced cinema to the Chinese so we have someone to relate to. But the true hero of the film instantly becomes the young Liu Jinglun (Xia Lu). His character is loosely based on the real-life Liu Zhong Lun, a pioneer in Chinese cinema who made the first Chinese narrative film in 1905 that gave birth to the nation's film industry.
Here, Hu seizes the opportunity to tell an interesting story of discovery with Chinese characters who are almost fully realized and wholly appealing. Liu leads the way, as played by Lu, one of China's more promising young actors with a smile that betrays his passions. His character is caught at a crossroads. He tries to remain loyal to his boss, Master Ren(Liu Peiqi), who runs the Feng Tai Photo Studio and has made Liu the chief photographer. He tries to obey his father and marry a frumpy widow.
But love, as it inevitably does, gets in the way. Hu's trick is showing how these two different and sometimes competing loves, play against each other. When Wallace comes to town with his promises of moving pictures, Liu is understandably intrigued and ultimately won over, to the point where he must choose between the security of his job and the possibilities (and uncertainty) of film.
At exactly the same moment, Liu falls in love with the Ling (Xing Yufei), the daughter of a legendary opera star, Lord Tran, who has come to the studio to have his portrait taken. Ultimately, Liu must choose between his love for Ling and his duty to his father to marry a woman he doesn't love. Complicating the whole thing is the reality that, as Wallace's moviehouse gains in popularity, Lord Tran's opera audiences dwindle. How can Liu pull it off?
That question isn't nearly as interesting as the impact movies initially have on the Chinese, and it is the scenes in the moviehouse that are some of Hu's finest simply by capturing reaction. When Liu sees his first film, Hu shoots his reactions from behind as he races up to the screen in excitement, interacting with the images and scurrying about the screen like a toddler around a new bicycle. Later, when Liu helps Wallace bring in customers, the shots of the star-struck citizens transcends the usual awestruck. They are filled with wonder, delight, surprise and fright (an oncoming train really feels like an oncoming train; thank God 3-D came much later). As they watch a European family interact at a dinner table, one viewer notes, "They seem to have feelings!"
All of Hu's characters have a certain depth to them. Though he is at odds with Liu's ambitions, Master Ren is only trying to respect a tradition that has served him well. Liu's father resents his son's rebellious nature, but becomes the unlikely source of help in a rather ironic twist. While Lord Tran (Li Yusheng, who has the honor of wearing Huang Bao Rong's vivid costumes) is vain and arrogant, he understands the realities of progress. The chemistry between the two lovers is sweet, too; when Liu takes Ling's picture, he says with a soft double-entendre, "You are captured forever." If Hu missteps at all, it is by making the arc of the film a little too convenient, the characters a little too soft; while there's dramatic tension here, there's the unmistakable feeling that everything's going to work out.
But tributes to the beauty of cinema -- like Cinema Paradiso, which also is drenched in sentimentalism and features a familiar violin thread throughout -- are often built this way. Most love letters, after all, focus on the love.