Threat advisory: High - High risk of entertaining activities
Peking, 1902. The Feng Tai Photo Shop is in a frenzy of preparation for the arrival of Peking's most important opera star, Lord Tan (Yusheng Li). Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), the chief photographer, is oblivious to the chaos as he tinkers with a broken Victrola he has found in a junk pile on his way to work. His boss, Master Ren (Liu Peiqi), chides Liu for his incessant fascination with Western novelties, which he feels have no place in traditional Chinese society.
In the flurry of activity surrounding Lord Tan's photo session, a foreigner, Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), arrives. Raymond has come to introduce Shadow magic, the first silent movies, to imperial Peking. From their first flicker, Liu is captured by the magic of the moving images.
Shadow magic unfolds against a backdrop of animosity towards foreigners. Peking is still smarting from the wounds caused by the Boxer Rebellion and the European occupation of the city. Liu must hide his friendship with Raymond from his employer, Master Ren, and his father, old Liu (Wang Jingming). As Liu spends more time with Raymond and the Shadow magic show, he starts to slip up in his work at the photo shop. He lies to Master Ren, never admitting that he's been working with the foreigner.
Persons of interest
- Jared Harris .... Raymond Wallace
- Yu Xia .... Liu Jinglun (Liu Zhonglun)
- Yufei Xing .... Ling
- Peiqi Liu .... Master Ren (Ren JingFeng)
- Liping Lu .... Madame Ren
- Jingming Wang .... Old Liu
- Yusheng Li .... Lord Tan (Tan Xinpei)
- Yukui Zhang .... Lao Chang
- Chuang Cheng .... Mi Hu
- Zhongwei Zheng .... Fu Guan
- Qi Mu .... Jewelry Tower
- Qingzhuo Fang .... Widow Jiang
- Bin Li .... Empress Ci Xi
- Yixiong Chen .... Screenwriter
- Dan Huang .... Screenwriter
- Huaizhuo Liu .... Screenwriter
- Bob Mcandrew .... Screenwriter
- Kate Raisz .... Screenwriter
- Louyi Tang .... Screenwriter
- Shiqiang Zuo .... Screenwriter
- Ann Hu .... Screenwriter
- Ann Hu .... Director
Cinematic intelligence sources
- Awards and film festivals:
- Silk Screen
- Shadow magic official movie site
- NB: Chinese language dialogue with English language subtitles
- Studios and distributors:
Special Agent Matti
The flip side of The last emperor.
The last emperor is a grand pageant of majesty and revolution. It shows the lives of the movers and shakers at the fall of imperial China. Shadow magic gives you a glimpse into the lives of the moved and shaken, just a few years before the majestic pageantry.
The cultural insight is incredible, as is the clash between a few millennia of civilisation and some Johnny-come-lately foreign barbarians who are struggling to total a few centuries out of their mud huts and grass skirts (remember that the Chinese were engaging in rocket-based warfare when Athens was a fishing village and Rome was just a bunch of hills near a river). Xia shows the sometimes subtle, sometimes suffocating turmoil of a man who is trapped between who he is and who he would like to be, just as his country is on the cusp of losing what it was and discovering what it will become. Liu's discovery of Western technology is childlike in its innocent joy, a delight to watch and ponder (especially as a cynic who has seen too many films this week already).
Jared comes across as a fish out of water, arrogant, ignorant and full of the Victorian sense of greatness. (Don't you just love being a citizen of the empire?) That's good because Raymond is just like that. He cares nothing for those around him except their ability to finance his latest get-rich-quick scheme. Balanced against this is the (justifiable) arrogance of the Chinese (it is their country, after all) and the sneering way with which they treat the barbarian (cultural superiority works both ways). Like any other hierarchical society, all outsiders are ridiculed unless the boss says that they're good, in which case everyone sucks up to the boss (that's a human trait, not a cultural one).
The last word, however, is left in the hands of the filmmakers, because they have tricked you into watching the foreign devil's magic, even if it is a magic of wonder and beauty.
Security censorship classification
PG (Adult themes, low level coarse language)
115 minutes (1:55 hours)
Not for public release in Australia before date
Film: 22 November 2001