March 17, 2024

SHADOW MAGIC: More Heartfelt Than Historical

2001 / 116 min
Available at
Review by Pepper the Poopy😺

Released in 2001, Shadow Magic makes few claims of historical accuracy. However, some of the characters are based on real people who were key figures in the making of what’s widely considered China’s first film…way back in 1905. 

Taking place a few years before that, Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu) is a young photographer who’s fascinated by western technology, to the chagrin of his boss, Master Ren (Liu Perqi), and father (Jingming Wang), both of whom are Chinese traditionalists. When enterprising Englishman Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) arrives with moving picture cameras and projectors, Liu is intrigued. Others, including snobbish opera star Tan Linmei (Li Yuheng), are dismissive of this ‘shadow magic,’ thinking it will ever catch on.

Tan is wrong, of course. When Liu and Wallace partner up and open a little movie house, the locals show up in droves, entranced by what they see. However, not only do a few incidents hamper their success, Liu is eventually ostracized by others for abandoning traditions and defying his father, the latter of which is exacerbated by his refusal to marry a rich widow (at Dad's behest) because he’s in love with Tan’s daughter (Xing Yufei).

"Our new movie needs dinosaurs...go wrangle a few."
Despite the historical context, much of the film covers familiar narrative ground. While well done and often interesting, the emotional heart of the story is the relationship between Liu and Wallace, which grows into a close friendship that contributes greatly to the affecting climax & denouement. Elsewhere, the sequences depicting filmmaking in its infancy - as well as its presentation - are fascinating.

Though leisurely paced and maybe a little overlong, Shadow Magic boasts a charming story with two likable main characters, both earnestly portrayed by Yu and Harris. And while film may not exactly be a history lesson, the attention to period detail related to movie making certainly feels authentic. 


AUDIO COMMENTARY - By director Ann Hu


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