A first kiss can carry hints of wondrous possibilities. Watching lovers we care about as they share that initial intimacy can be vicariously intoxicating.
This dizzying effect is doubled, at least, in Shadow Magic, (2000; directed by Ann Hu and written by Hu with four others; in English and Mandarin, with some subtitles).
As the young man and woman share their first kiss, which is possibly the first ever for each of them, black and white images from a movie projector flicker around them. The lovers have found each other in Peking in 1902, when photographs are still rare and moving images are almost unheard of. A spark of new love combines with a spark of magic in a new medium to suffuse this beautifully told story with a gentle glow.
The story's catalyst is a young Englishman who comes to China at the dawn of the 20th century to make his fortune. Raymond Wallace, played nicely by Jared Harris, is immediately frustrated in his efforts to amaze the people of Peking with the images generated by his hand-cranked cameras and projectors. Centuries of isolation have left the Chinese suspicious of outsiders and uneager to welcome either Europeans or technologies that will change their way of life.
So Liu Jing Lun convinces Wallace to hire him to introduce motion pictures to thewary Chinese. Liu's love for gadgets makes him susceptible to the powerful lure of movies. Actor Xia Yu superbly suggests the ways in which this young man's powerful enthusiasms pull him to a future he is certain will be rich with wonders.
One of those wonders, he hopes, is Ling (Xing Yufei), the beautiful daughter of Peking's most celebrated opera star. That's tough because Liu's family has arranged to marry him to a wealthy widow. Further, the traditionally conservative opera singer is wary of allowing his daughter to wed a man who appears not to respect the arts and other heritages that have made the opera singer rich, famous and happy. These are obstacles familiar from hundreds of stories about young love, and they are managed in ways that probably won't surprise but almost certainly will satisfy.
Shadow Magic's jubilation about the magic of movies is reminiscent of the similarly celebratory Cinema Paradiso (1988), although there is more food for thought in this one than in that airy Italian confection.
In Shadow Magic there are perhaps some echoes of another terrific Chinese film, King of Masks (1997). In that one an ancient Chinese art form might die amid the tumultuous changes in pre-WWII China. In both movies there is a sense that traditions are being lost and that whatever is replacing them might be less enriching. In both movies there are affecting characters whose efforts to cope with progress are rendered with affection.
But Hu has created an original in Shadow Magic, and she has done so with impressive deftness. Except for a tiny piece of heavyhanded symbolism involving the Great Wall and a bit of dialogue that hammers that already too-obvious message, everything in Hu's direction is assured and dexterous.
On the one hand, she has crafted an enthralling celebration of the power of movies to open up unknown worlds. But on the other, she has sensitively acknowledged that the seeming relentless advance of such miracles can upset and even frighten people for whom the wonders of tradition are enough.
Hu loves people and movies. She and her cast and crew have given an entrancing gift to everyone else who loves them as well.
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