“Shadow Magic” takes an interesting subject — the introduction of motion-picture technology into a reluctant China at the turn of the 20th century — and makes it into a good-enough movie with good-enough acting and good-enough characters. It’s not great but it’s, well, good enough.
It is 1902 and Englishman Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) has come to Peking with his new device that makes pictures move. The dynastic Chinese, however, are still coming to terms with photographs that DON’T move, and many of the elders aren’t fond of anything from the West, no matter how nifty it may seem.
So Raymond’s attempts at entertaining (and making money from) the Chinese are foiled by traditionalism, until he meets Lui (Yu Xiz), a curious, clever young man who speaks some English (itself a sign of his unorthodoxy) and who is interested in anything and everything new. With his endorsement, the townspeople start entering Raymond’s tent by the droves, eager to see these movies, which are nothing more than shots of people walking around, swimming or riding trains. (What they lack in plot, however, they make up for by not having Freddie Prinze Jr. in them.)
The Chinese are fascinated and delighted by the new medium, particularly as it offers them a new view of Westerners. “They appear to have feelings,” one of the viewers says. “And even a sense of humor.”
Competing for the locals’ attention is Lord Tan (Yusheng Li), a popular singer who performs Chinese opera in the town. That the people would start to prefer the movies over his singing is pure effrontery, and he’ll have none of it. As you might expect, his daughter (Yufei Xing) and Liu start to fall into forbidden love with each other.
Raymond, we learn, is trying to make money to win back his wife, who has left with his children because of his poverty. Liu represents to him the hope of bringing China into the ever-changing present.
Several underdeveloped themes are introduced, not the least of which is the moral question of who, if anyone, has the right to force a people to “catch up.” That question is virtually ignored, in fact, with China’s introduction to the Modern Age presented almost as a foregone conclusion. (Lord Tan’s falsetto opera singing and heavily stylized performance may cause American audiences to snicker, rather than be awed at how grand traditional Chinese art is, and how it is valid and should be left alone. I wonder if this was the intent.)
Jared Harris and young Yu Xiz make an interesting duo, given that Harris’ character speaks little Chinese and Yu’s speaks little English. The grown-up/teen-ager dynamic is nothing new, but it is adequately portayed here; I wish I’d found more to care about with either character, though. The whole thing is adequate. Suitable. Moderately interesting. Altogether just average.
C (; )