Shadow and Acting
By Steve Hofstetter
Enjoying a film with subtitles takes a lot for me, and I have never been remotely interested in 1902 Chinese opera. So even if writer/producer/director Ann Hu's Shadow Magic had been meticulous in detail, funny, heartwarming, or a combination of the three, I may still have not enjoyed it. But the film's lack of authenticity and its Swiss-cheese plot made the movie even more difficult to sit through.
The 115-minute Shadow Magic (Sony Pictures Classics) tackles the issue of Western influence on turn-of-the-century China through the eyes of Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), a photographer smitten with technology. Enter down-on-his-luck Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), an English-speaking British man who is looking to make a fast buck by introducing the moving picture to China. Liu befriends Raymond, and together they face the challenge of introducing the new medium to a skeptical Peking. In their way stands the head of the town's photo studio and Liu's boss, Master Ren (Liu Peiqi); revered opera singer who is frightened of being phased out, Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), and Liu's father, the poor-yet-wise Old Liu (Wang Lingming).
"The film provided me with great opportunities to tell a story to people of both worlds," Hu said. "I am Chinese and American. We are really very much alike. This film gives me a chance to get that message across."
But by splitting her efforts, Hu's message arrives at a middle ground that may not particularly appeal to either of the worlds she is aiming for.
The basic plot has enough conflict and resolution to make a good story, but the execution is patchwork. Hu vacillates between a drama and a history lesson, often giving her characters long winded explanations of China's past. And in her attempt to also include a love story and comedic elements, Hu compromises what could be, at the very least, a lot more interesting than a standard documentary. What frustrated me most, however, was Hu's lack of attention to detail.
The richest members of the town wear dull colors. Birds chirp while it snows. Peering out a window, Raymond and Liu can't figure out a way to record scenes of the villagers without the villagers' knowledge. Children fail to age. And when Liu gets angry, he becomes fluent in English.
There are redeeming aspects to the work, including some insightful dialogue and eye-catching effects with Hu's use of black and white film to begin and end the movie. But Shadow Magic is Hu's first major feature film and it shows; the continuity errors and the often shaky camera work take away from the story's entertaining and documentary aspects.
"Compromise," Master Ren tells Liu, "is the essence of life."
If I were to take Shadow Magic as testimony, I would say that Hu subscribes to the same philosophy. Her attempt at using character development to turn a history lesson into an entertaining film creates neither; Shadow Magic is too inaccurate to be taken as the truth, and too much of a lecture to be taken as entertainment.