We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Shadow Magic, the second feature film by Chinese-American former commodities trader Ann Hu, proves that you don’t have to have major-studio backing or British actors to produce a cloying, slowly paced period drama. Set in imperial Beijing shortly after the Boxer Rebellion, the film details the coming of motion pictures to a wary, xenophobic China. Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu) is a photo assistant at the traditionalist Feng Tai Photo Shop who is drawn to novel Western technologies. When itinerant Englishman Raymond Wallace (played with a thick Cockney accent by Jared Harris) comes to town and sets up his Shadow Magic moving-picture show, Liu starts to work for Wallace in secret—which leads to conflicts with his employer, Master Ren (Liu Peigi); his father (Wang Jingming); and renowned opera singer Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), whose daughter Liu loves and whose business is injured by the new entertainment. It’s a fascinating premise—what was it like to live in a world without movies and to see them for the very first time?—and making the movie—the first collaboration between the mainland Beijing Film Studio and Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation—was a considerable production achievement. But Shadow Magic doesn’t really get going until almost halfway through, and the acting is stagey and predictable, with the exception of the anomalously nuanced performance of 60-year-old Yusheng. The costumes and sets are lovely, though, carefully selected from the vast stores of the Beijing Film Studio, on whose grounds the movie was made. Shots of the Great Wall, royal palace, and the Forbidden City are used to great effect, but the film’s most engaging images are the few early Chinese reels themselves, such as a sequence showing peasant children giddily running after a cart. And the rather flat dialogue is perhaps more interesting in Mandarin; the English subtitles have Liu, at a critical moment, crying out to a disapproving crowd, “You think I’m nothing, but I’ll show you!” —Garance Franke-Ruta