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'Shadow Magic'

Chinese 'Shadow Magic' a sweeping, beautiful epic about love and movies

Saturday, May 19, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

In 1902, it's very much Peking -- not Beijing -- a place where foreigners are looked upon with much suspicion, especially if they're trying to make a buck from gimmicky Western inventions.

That is exactly what Raymond (Jared Harris) is trying to do with the most astonishing gimmick of the new 20th century. The Englishman calls it "moving pictures." The Chinese have a more poetically accurate term for it: "Shadow Magic."

"Shadow Magic"

Rating: PG for subtitles

Starring: Jared Harris, Xia Yu, Xing Yufei, Liu Peiqi

Director: Ann Hu

Critic's call:



Director-producer-writer Ann Hu's homage to the early entrepreneurs of cinema in China is a sweeping epic of great beauty, inspired by the true story of a photographer named Liu (Xia Yu) who braved the wrath of his traditionalist countrymen -- and the loss of his job, his family's respect and his beloved -- in pursuit of a mesmerizing new magic that records and preserves life before it has time to change.

People scream and duck when a train comes rushing toward them from the flickering on a white sheet -- even though they love it. But it threatens the old guard, especially Liu's portrait-studio employer (Liu Peiqi) and celebrity client Tan (Li Yusheng), star of the Peking Opera. Further complicating matters is the fact that Liu has been engaged against his will to a chubby rich widow when, in fact, he is in love with Tan's beautiful daughter, Ling (Xing Yufei).

"You are captured forever!" he tells her of her film image, poignantly wishing it were true of her place in his life.

Harris is fine as slightly seedy Raymond. But the film and its huge heart belong to sweet visionary Liu, superbly played by Xia Yu. "The time will come when men will cut off their pigtails and women will un-bind their feet," he declares -- and is slapped into shame for such sacrilege.

Ann Hu's gentle touch, lyrical style and stunning cinematography are precisely what the movie needs.

At age 11, director Hu was among millions of Chinese children whose educated parents were hounded from their jobs and into labor camps by Mao's Cultural Revolution. You'll understand, then, that not the least important thing about "Shadow Magic," which is showing at the Regent Square Theater, is the fact that it's the first official co-production between corporate film entities of both Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (not to mention additional international involvement of the United States and Germany). It's that rare thing -- a film lending itself to artistic cooperation instead of political conflict.

That -- like this film -- is great piece of shadow magic, indeed.

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