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Set in Imperial Peking in 1902, Shadow Magic is inspired by the story of the arrival of moving pictures in China. Threadbare English entrepreneur Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) arrives with his projector and some footage with hopes of making his fortune. Foreigners are not particularly welcome, but young photographer Liu Jing Lun (Xia Yu) is instantly attracted to the notion of film and his friendship and help enable Raymond to run a business – even get an invitation to the Imperial Palace for a showing. But the new entertainment threatens traditional Chinese opera, whose famed Lord Tan is competition to the movies. And with whose daughter Liu falls in love. But neither the romance nor the Imperial showing go smoothly.

Just like Cinema Paradiso allowed us to relive the magic of cinema through the eyes of a young boy, Shadow Magic expresses a similar sentiment in its charming story in Imperial Peking in the early 1900s. It's a gentle film that captures the wonder of the moving image through the eyes of a young Chinese photographer, whose life is changed forever by its impact. Based on a true story, Ann Hu's beautiful film showcases the intersection of eastern culture and traditions with the advent of western technology. How can we forget Liu's huge, expressive eyes as he discovers a brand new world? His amazement and excitement is infectious, and suddenly we too rediscover that magic. What a wonderful moment it is, when a room full of uninitiated Chinese watch black and white moving images for the very first time. 'Something new at my age!' wonders one old man, who until now thought he has seen it all. The juxtaposition of stark, rough images of trains, babies, people walking and feeding birds, men drinking wine, are hugely affecting, set to Johann Strauss' glorious Blue Danube Waltz and The Tales from the Vienna Woods. The ornate costumes are exquisite, the settings striking, and there's a spectacular moment on the Great Wall of China when Liu and Wallace consider their future. This is a world that embraces arranged marriages, and the scenes that involve the bride-to-be in question (Widow Jiang - wonderfully characterised by Fang Zingzhuo) are some of the film's most amusing. Xia Yu and Jared Harris as Wallace are especially credible, but all the performances are memorable – from the extraordinary opera star Lord Tan to Liu's hen-pecked employer Master Ren. We clearly get a sense of their life beyond their characters, and this endears us to them all. The blossoming romance between Liu and Ling is sweet indeed; aptly echoing the fresh essence of the themes. The moment we have all been waiting for is at the very end of the film, when members of the community see themselves as they really are. Uplifting and gently amusing, Shadow Magic is an enchanting treat.
Louise Keller

Historically important as an official co-production between film studios in Taiwan and China, Shadow Magic is a credible but slightly clumsy attempt at building social fusion metaphor via the events it dramatises. Ann Hu, a New York resident Chinese, has a commendable flair for visualising the story and for handling such a wide range of complex elements – from individuals to entire cultures, from professionals to amateurs, from Western style to Eastern tradition. However, there are some serious flaws in characterisation, with both Raymond and Liu, the central figures of her story. Raymond is thinly drawn and somehow ill-fitting as the intrepid entrepreneur, while Liu seems to acquire English language skills periodically, then lose them, causing confusion and undermining credibility. The film is eye-pleasing and has a haunting soundtrack, and provides a glimpse into a crucial, changing era in China. It celebrates the birth of cinema as a popular art form, but it fails to generate enough dramatic power through character. And that’s the main reason it seems overlong.
Andrew L. Urban

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CAST: Jared Harris, Yu Xia, Yufei Xing, Peiqi Liu, Liping Lu



SCRIPT: Yixiong Chen, Ann Hu, Dan Huang, Huaizhuo Liu, Bob McAndrew, Kate Raisz, Louyi Tang, Shiqiang Zuo


EDITOR: John Gilroy, Keith Reamer


MUSIC: Lida Zhang

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 22, 2001

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