If it isn’t obvious by now, I have a deep love for cinema and it extends to its early beginnings at the turn of the 20th century. It was a medium that was initially considered a passing novelty that would go by the way of other carnival parlor tricks. However, it was thankfully here to stay and it flourished beyond anyone’s imagination at the time. Shadow Magic is a film that covers a little known piece of cinema’s early history. Its a fascinating film from a historical perspective even though I found it to be artistically flawed.

Shadow Magic takes place in 1902 in Peking, China. Photography was the most advanced technology known to the Chinese at the time and even it had its naysayers. Along comes an Englishman (Jared Harris), an entrepreneur who has decided to set up a movie theater right in Peking and introduce the Chinese to the new technology of moving pictures. Being a foreigner, he’s not successful at first in bringing people into his theater. This however changes when he meets a young Chinese man who works for the local photography studio. The young man has an infatuation with new technologies like the phonograph so when he sees his first movie, he is blown away. Wanting to learn how this technology works, he decides to work for the Englishman. Together they make a success of the movie theater and eventually they win over the Chinese with their moving pictures.

I am a HUGE fan of the Italian film, Cinema Paradiso and I regard it as my all-time favorite foreign movie. It was no surprise then that when I learned of Shadow Magic and what it was about, I couldn’t wait to see it. Both films are about the love of movies and both mix in a love story involving a girl. However, where Cinema Paradiso excelled in every aspect of the movie, Shadow Magic comes off as unemotional and bland in comparison. It has all the elements to make for a great movie, but unfortunately the pieces don’t quite fit together in the end.

As I state above, Shadow Magic is an interesting historical narrative of how movies were brought to China. The friendship between the young Chinese man and the Englishman develops nicely and creates a good chemistry between the characters. Jared Harris is wonderful as the success-or-bust English entrepreneur. He has made a lot of films over the past decade, but he’s never been able to break out unto his own. Here, however, he shows his ability to carry a film and he’s helped immensely by Yu Xia, who plays the young Chinese man. You feel the shared love for cinema the two have the same way the man and the little boy did in Cinema Paradiso. I wish the film had focused solely on this rather than throw in the tired old love story.

Where the film falls apart is the love story between the young man and the daughter of a famous Peking Opera singer. I had absolutely no interest in whether or not the man and woman were going to end up together. They lacked any sort of chemistry, which I mainly fault the woman for. She barely has any dialogue and the interactions between she and the young man are stilted and lack emotion. Most scenes I remember her in were simply close-up shots of her face just staring into the camera. The film, unfortunately, takes up a lot of time trying to resolve our young man’s love life (he’s also arranged by his father to marry a rich widow, which is equally uninteresting and undeveloped in the film). This sub-plot really slowed the film down and it detracted from my enjoyment of it.

Another issue I had with the film was how formulaic the story was. You have the typical plot of the boy who wants to pursue his dream, but he’s continually told he can’t. Then there is the love story of the boy who wants the girl he cannot have. I’m not saying these are bad stories or that they shouldn’t be told because they have been covered so many times. My problem is that they are handled so conventionally and formulaically by the director that the film fails to make any impression by the end of it. At the end, all the plotlines are neatly resolved, which just felt way too Hollywood for a indie movie that should have felt anything but Hollywood.

Shadow Magic also explores the effect this new cinema had on the Chinese at that time. Many of them considered it an evil Western influence that was set to overtake Chinese traditions and culture. Ironically, the photograph, which was a Western invention and had not been around for very long, was widely accepted in China by then. One of the supporting characters is a famous Peking Opera performer, who derides the “shadow magic” and eventually considers it a threat to the existence of Peking Opera as more people begin to flock to the Englishman’s cinema. I really enjoyed seeing how the Chinese reacted to cinema and I believe that between this and the relationship between the Englishman and the young man, Shadow Magic could have made for an excellent movie.

Finally, one cannot talk about this movie without mentioning the beautiful cinematography. The film is draped in warm, rich colors, which I don’t see very often in films today. The filmmakers give you a sense and feel of the time period this way. The nice look of the film is of course helped by the beauty of Chinese architecture and settings during that time period. There is an especially stunning scene that takes place atop the Great Wall (which was actually shot there) during sunset. It is an absolutely gorgeous scene to behold and it reminded me of epic Hollywood dramas.

So there you go. Shadow Magic is certainly no Cinema Paradiso, but it does have its good points. I wanted this movie to be so much more than it was, which I partly attribute to the director’s lack of experience. Its basic story/historical background is fascinating enough without having to throw in a love story, which the filmmaker probably felt compelled to do. If you’re a movie history buff like I am, Shadow Magic may still be worth a rental. Otherwise, go see Cinema Paradiso and thank me later.

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