Shadow Magic

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Shadow Magic

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One of the most enduring myths in cinema was first propagated in December 1895, after the Lumière Brothers—whose "Employees Leaving The Lumière Factory" is generally considered the first moving picture—gathered a paying audience in a Paris café for a shorts program. Upon seeing "Arrival Of A Train At The Station," the patrons reportedly screamed and ducked for cover, convinced that the locomotive onscreen was about to strike them. This story is often held as the earliest example of the power and immediacy of the filmed image, but it's just as likely an example of P.T. Barnum showmanship, the birth of movie-business hype. The myth continues, shamelessly, in Ann Hu's Shadow Magic, resurfacing in turn-of-the-century Peking, where an enterprising British huckster (Jared Harris) introduces the East to an amazing new invention from the West. Harris' hit parade of Lumière shorts, including the train barreling into the station, leads to a predictable shot of his first audience diving, panicked, behind their seats. Like Cinema Paradiso, which it resembles in more ways than one, Shadow Magic returns again and again to images of enraptured faces illuminated by the screen, a cloying reminder of the simple wonderment of going to the movies. Hu's fondness for cheap sentiment lays a Disneyfied gloss on the potentially fascinating story of China's first filmmaker, whose true identity remains unknown. Yu Xia stars as the local technophile, an ace photographer who also owns one of the few phonographs in town, impressing his wealthy clientele with the "ostentatious" sounds of Western music. When Harris arrives in town seeking his fortune, he's initially met with suspicion and contempt, but Xia's boyish enthusiasm for modern advances draws him into Harris' makeshift theater. Stunned by what he witnesses, Xia befriends Harris, and the two become partners, awing passersby with their "shadow magic" demonstrations. But they find resistance in a few fuddy-duddy traditionalists, most notably a revered old opera star (Yusheng Li) whose ravishing daughter (Yufei Xing) catches poor Xia's eye, despite his arranged marriage to an aging widow. Hu shows little sympathy for the view that the West poses a dire threat to China's cultural heritage, never considering that the dawn of film may signify the end of something more valuable than arranged marriages and class division. Shadow Magic celebrates the universal power of the movies, and the delight people feel in seeing their world transformed on screen. But in those illuminated faces, it also cheers bland homogeneity.

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