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Monday, October 17, 2011

Ann Hu: Shadow Magic

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic
image from the movie
(published by Elisabeth Wright in Senses of Cinema)

Beijing, 1902. An Englishman comes to the city, with some weird boxes and a pile of film reels: copies of the first motion pictures produced ever, Lumière, Edison, all that stuff. His aim is to create the first movie theater in China. People regard him with a mix of feelings, from indifference or mistrust to extreme caution or overt hostility. His Shadow Magic is just too much of an oddity, to say nothing that the Englishman himself is just too much of an oddity, with his European allure, with his funny way to pronounce the very few Chinese words he knows, with everything. And just a couple of years earlier European armies invaded the country and imposed an onerous peace treaty, so to say that any European is unwelcome here would be far from an exaggeration.

A young Chinese photographer befriends the Englishman. Liu, that's the name of the Chinese, is an enthusiast, very open to the world, he has learned by himself some rudimentary English and has the passion to understand (and if possibly to replicate) the inners of any new gadget that comes from the West. No wonder the two become partners and the Shadow Magic starts to attract audience. Very soon the young Chinese learns all secrets and the two even begin to film on the streets, recording scenes of everyday life, and then making a trip to the Great Wall.

Not all this runs smoothly: the young Chinese is torn between his attachment for the Shadow Magic and his loyalty towards people who reject the new distraction, for fear that it will work against their traditional ways. To make things more complicated, Liu is in love for the beautiful daughter of the much respected star of the Chinese opera. Will not success of cinema ruin Chinese opera?

And a lot of things happen, some of them just funny, some others dramatic; in the end the Englishman is forced to leave the country, but his Shadow Magic remains, and the history of Chinese cinema begins to unfold. While the English hero of Shadow Magic might very well be just a fictional personage, the other characters are as real as hell: the real pioneers of Chinese film industry.

So Liu, the photographer, was actually a real person (Liu Zhong-Lun), like his master Ren (Ren Jing-Feng), the owner of Feng Tai Photographic Studio, like the Chinese Opera star, Tan (Tan Xin-Pei): the three made in 1905 the first Chinese movie, Ding Jung-Shan, having Master Ren as director, the young Liu as cinematographer, and Tan, the famous opera lord, as star. Unfortunately the only print of this first Chinese movie was lost, by the end of the 1940's. A second movie followed in the same year 1905 (Long Hard Slope, with the same cast and crew). Several movies were produced there till 1909, when Feng Tai Photo Studio was destroyed by a fire. By that time another cinematographic center was emerging: Shanghai.

And Shadow Magic ends with images reenacted from these first Chinese motion pictures.

image from Ding Jung-Shan, the first Chinese movie
(reenactment in 西洋镜 - Shadow Magic)

(published Elisabeth Wright in Senses of Cinema)


西洋镜 - Shadow Magic, the first long feature film of Ann Hu (made in 2000, she was director, screenwriter and producer) is a very ambitious endeavor, working on multiple plans.

On one plan it is a tribute to the pioneers of Chinese movie industry. It was the way this tribute was conceived that made some reviewers to declare Shadow Magic a light movie, unpretentious, not to be ranged within the masterworks of today's China film.

Well, like any tribute of this kind, it is a warm story, the fathers of Chinese cinema are followed with genuine sympathy: like any pioneers in any domain they simply were not aware of their future role in history; the fathers didn't know that some day they would be THE fathers. They were seeing themselves just as common guys and were behaving as such, sometimes with mistakes, sometimes with naivety, sometimes like fools, sometimes in love, sometimes bad tempered.

Master Ren and Liu examining a phonograph (that Liu has found in the junk)

It is also another criticism brought to Shadow Magic: that it suffers from lack of originality, copying themes and moods from Cinema Paradiso.

It is true that the wheel cannot be reinvented each time one makes a movie about the beginnings of cinema. However I would note that Cinema Paradiso is built differently, on a play of memory and nostalgia, while in Shadow Magic there is no place for nostalgia: it is not about a vanished world of movie theaters; by the contrary, it shows the beginnings of what is today one of the most important schools of cinema worldwide.

Shadow Magic called in my mind rather another film, Diarios de Motocicleta, where the main character, a sympathetic medical student nicknamed Che is also totally unaware that one day he will become a famous (or infamous, matter of perspective) revolutionary leader.

There is also another plan (that was also in Ann Hu's previous Dream and Memory): the Englishman comes with his projector and suddenly East meets West in 1902's Beijing. This contact seems to be of great interest for director Ann Hu. What happens when the two universes come into contact? What happens there on the border? Do they explode, do they remain separate looking at each other across the trenches, or is a new universe emerging on the surface of contact?

In Dream and Memory the border is in the mind of Hong, the Chinese who (like director Ann Hu) moved long time ago to the US. For him one universe looks like a dream, unclear and remote, while the present universe needs the mechanisms of memory to reenact the lost dream. It's East coming to the West, and West trying to recuperate East: China is far away and long ago, America is here and now, China needs to be appropriated.

Here in Shadow Magic it is West that comes to the the East. England is far away, China is here and now. And the border is in the heart of Liu, the Chinese passionate to go beyond the limits of his known world, while torn out by the force of his loyalties. It's a pop-out and a push-back bringing the border now and then on the brink of explosion, while little by little a coalescing universe begins to take shape. Maybe this was also the case in the Big Bang model? Just kidding.

Shadow Magic is also a tribute paid to the charm of old Beijing, with its incredible mix of people and carts and camels on the streets, that incredible mix of present with its seemingly chaotic agitation and past with its quiet force; all these found in Ann Hu an exquisite artist painter. Here all reviewers are unanimous in recognizing her talent in rending the images, her sensibility for each nuance of color, for each detail of the street. Her mastership of the visual language is amazing, and also her science of controlling the movement of each actor on the scene. The movie has the synchronization of a ballet, any movement comes in its exact place, no earlier, no later, no slower, no faster, no shorter, no longer.

And I think nowhere in the movie it's the cinematic genius of Ann Hu as overwhelming as in the scenes at the Great Wall. When it came there I was afraid I would see kind of a tourist commercial (the risk any moviemaker is running when shooting in a famous place). Well, it was far from that. The Great Wall was playing together with the two actors, the Englishman and the young Chinese, witnessing their enthusiasm to be there, their feeling that they got the best life could give, because being there! It was the way the Great Wall was shot that made it an active part of the action! I saw only one other movie that gave me the same impression, Springtime in a Small Town of Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, cinematographed by Li Ping-Bin (a remake after another Chinese masterpiece). It was there, in the movie of Tian that I had this feeling, that the setting was an active actor in the drama!


I learned about this movie on the web, while looking for information about anthropologist Nancy Jervis, one of the important scholars interested in the rapport between culture and civilization.

Dr. Nancy Jervis was invited in the spring of 2001 to present Shadow Magic in an event organized in New York, dedicated to a battery of movies considered by the critics as coming attractions. Dr. Jervis was there in her capacity of Vice President and Director of Programs at China Institute in NY. She had lived and worked in China for three years (1979-1982) and part of that time she had been with China Film Corporation in Beijing. Earlier in the 1970’s she had worked with Joris Ivens on the English version of his Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains),

As I found this information about Dr. Nancy Jervis presenting Shadow Magic, I became immediately interested in the movie and I started to search the web to find as much as possible about it. Meanwhile I learned also about director Ann Hu and her other films.

Little by little I read on the web a lot of material about Shadow Magic. I knew now the plot in all details, without seeing anything from it. I was feeling sad that no fragment from the film was available. It was like I had the movie constructed in my head, only it was my movie, not the real one.

After long searches I started to find little pieces from Shadow Magic, firstly the trailer, then a couple of fragments.

Eventually I found the entire movie in 12 consecutive youTube videos: spoken in Mandarin and English, with no subtitles. It was a real treat, I watched it in amazement. It is rare to find a movie to keep high your interest for all its moments.

Then I started to write this post, and as I was coming each day with some corrections, with adding new details, I experienced the same feeling of joy that I had on reading about Shadow Magic, in imagining it, in discovering fragments from it and in watching the whole movie.

And here you have the 12 consecutive videos that compose Shadow Magic.

Though having no subtitles, it can be easily understood after reading somewhere the plot. There is a very good synopsis in Wikipedia at:

Also, to make your hand, so to speak, before watching the whole movie without subtitles, you should see a scene that has the translation in English:

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 1/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 2/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 3/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 4/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 5/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 6/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 7/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 8/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 9/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 10/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 11/12
(video by slzNO1)

西洋镜 - Shadow Magic - 12/12
(video by slzNO1)

(Ann Hu)

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