The cinema comes to Peking in 1905. Shadow Magic is an intoxicating film for anyone who has ever fallen in love with the wonders of light and sound and show business. The introduction of technical reproduction of images threatens the traditional stage performances and since moving pictures are from the West, seen as an aggressive threat to destroy the chinese way of life. But the discovery is soon made that film can capture people in their everyday life and the people will enjoy seeing themselves and whats better, PAY to see the lives they live everyday shown back to them in a beam of light.I don't want to get to into a lengthy comparison of Shadow Magic with Cinema Paradiso. The important note is that film is both the background and the foreground. The role of film and the institution surrounding it has a tremendous impact on people's lives. The movie house in Paradiso was a social center and a young boy learned to fall in love with the power of film.
In Shadow Magic, a young chinese man, Liu, befriends a westerner who has arrived with a machine that can make pictures move. Liu is enamored with Western inventions such as the phonograph and works as a photographer. This puts him squarely at the axis where emerging technologies of mechanical reproduction of sound and images are beginning to supplant live entertainment and the role of live entertainers in the culture. You don't have to be critical in the abstract, you can just point at Liu and say "he is doing this to our culture". That's a lot of pressure for a young man who can't see anything wrong with what he's doing.
Liu's partnership with the Westerner, Raymond, puts him at odds with his boss because he is not showing loyalty to him, with his culture, for embracing western technology and with the girl he loves, whose father is a famed opera singer and much loved in Peking. The Shadow Magic begins to take revenue and audiences away from the traditional opera.
Liu has to decide what is more important to him, being Chinese, or being a film maker. His solution is to be a Chinese film maker and his first film is a performance of Lord Tan, the beloved opera star.
Shadow Magic is loosely based on the facts surrounding the introduction of film in China and the first chinese film.
I liked this film so much better than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shadow Magic is subtle and graceful, bold and complex and deeply textured. The subplots and leitmotifs (I love that word) will resonate with a wide audience. The story fortunately doesn't become bogged down in the romance between Liu and Lord Tan's daughter nor does it stay tightly focused around Liu's love for cinema. The whole of society is swept across the screen with film as the place of record and as a technology and as a cultural force. The cinematography is inviting and the costumes and scenery is laid out to be admired as much as the story, much the way films were made to be watched in the 30's and 40's. Everything counted. You might have nothing, but the film would have your dream.So much of this movie was about film at that time. It was dangerous to produce and show films. And the focus on the Chinese people as they discover cinema reminds all film makers and fans why we keep going back and how this monster ever catapulted into the center of our culture.