This mix of fact and fiction, directed by Ann Hu and set in Peking in 1902, purports to tell the story of the introduction of cinema to China. Centered around the real historical figure of Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), a young photographer with a natural curiosity about Western innovations, the movie has an appropriate and well-delineated sense of wonder in its intermittent depictions of the birth of a new medium. Unfortunately, such moments are respites in an overlong and familiarly melodramatic plot.
Liu is introduced to movies under the auspices of one Raymond Wallace (Jered Harris), a fictional character meant to represent the several foreign movie entrepreneurs then traveling through China. When Wallace comes to town and sets up his Shadow Magic operation, he’s met by both hostility (mainly from Liu’s boss Master Ren (Liu Peiqi) and the regal opera singer Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), who immediately see that this new apparition may be a potential competitor). There’s just indifference from the locals who can’t be bothered to investigate yet another Western novelty. Only Liu seems to grasp the potential of Wallace’s little “magic” show, and his determination to be involved with it leads to troubles with his boss and with his fiancee, Lord Tan’s daughter.
When the movie focuses on the reactions of the people who are seeing Wallace and his hand-cranked, silent vignettes for the first time, it has the unforced charm of a fairytale that happens to be based on reality. But director Hu and her four fellow scriptwriters treat the short-term consequences of Liu’s esthetic foresight with a lugubrious lack of subtlety.
At first the culture clash is interesting, but after awhile one just endures the thudding plot, waiting for the sequences in the dark with the beam of light and its miraculously moving pictures.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].