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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Shadow Magic
Shadow Magic
Columbia/Tri-Star // PG // September 11, 2001
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 27, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Like all technical innovations, the motion picture medium received some resistance from traditionalists when it first appeared. Unlike other innovations, however, film is able to reflect back on it's own history. Shadow Magic (2000) is the semi-true story of the first film screenings in that most traditional of places, turn of the 20th century China. By setting her story there, director Ann Hu is able to draw a few strange comparisons. The levels of tradition are demarcated by three stops: Chinese opera, still photography, and motion pictures. Photography is the portal through which the past and the future are able to view each other. The film's main character Liu (Xia Yu) works as a portrait photographer, snapping pictures of, among other, opera star Lord Tan (Yusheng Li). He also dreams of assisting British entrepreneur Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) with his Shadow Magic shows, montages of early filmed experiments. (The first footage he shows is the first the world saw: The Lumiere workers leaving their factory.) Liu also finds himself in love with Master Tan's daughter Ling (Yufei Xing), placing him at the crossroads of history.

The trap that Shadow Magic could have fallen into would have been to turn the film into a didactic, overly symbolic lecture. One Hundred and One Nights tries to use the history of film to make a point but ends up being an undistinguished, pretentious mess. Shadow Magic's strength lies in its characters. Sometimes they are drawn with very simple strokes (Wallace's estrangement from his family is mentioned briefly and without flourish helps to explain him) but they are always identifiable and sympathetic. Liu especially is the kind of character that serves best as an audience stand-in. He is sweet but smart, curious and a little brash, but he has intellectual curiosity and romantic innocence. While he balances the different worlds of tradition and technology Liu manages to internalize the same struggle that his entire nation is going through.

Ultimately Shadow Magic is pretty light. It plays with big issues and emotions but it doesn't aim to be a huge film. Instead, it portrays a few good characters, an interesting scenario, and some fine visual moments (Liu and Wallace's visit to the great wall). The ability of film to tell its own story is an important one. If the first film screenings were anything like the shadow magic shows seen here, with the small audiences watching shots of everyday life, first from abroad, then from their own lives, then Shadow Magic is worth it just to see how our movie-loving ancestors saw things.

VIDEO:
The wide-screen anamorphic transfer is pretty nice, with the golden hues of the film reproduced fairly faithfully. The picture is crisp and the occasional dirt is not intrusive.

AUDIO:
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 2.0, although both English and Chinese are spoken in the film. The soundtrack is simple but effective. English and French subtitles are available.

EXTRAS:
Commentary from director Ann Hu is included along with trailers for a variety of Chinese films, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Not One Less. Hu's commentary is interesting, although she isn't the most dynamic speaker, due probably to the fact that English isn't her first language. She ably discusses details of the production process and points out tough decisions and compromises she had to make. The film was a co-production between China and Taiwan (a first) as well as Germany, America, and other countries, so she had to represent a lot of interests. She seems proud of the film, however, and sounds excited to be discussing it.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Shadow Magic is a simple film that manages to be effective with good characters, real emotions, and an interesting premise. Fans of film history will enjoy the portrayal of the early film viewing experience. While not attempting to make a sweeping political statement like many of her fellow Chinese filmmakers, Hu does say something about the state of her country when it was at a crossroad between the past and the future.

E-mail Gil at buskerdog@yahoo.com
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