The vast majority of Hollywood filmmakers have gotten so spoiled by the amount of technology and gimmickry available to them that they've forgotten how to tell an old-fashioned story.
Fortunately, that affliction hasn't completely poisoned the ever-growing pool of foreign and independent filmmakers, who still create intimate tales like "Shadow Magic" to bolster our faith in cinematic storytelling.
Even though this fact-based drama is a bit reminiscent of other, similarly themed films, including the 1988 Oscar-winner "Cinema Paradiso," and despite the fact that it's occasionally corny, "Shadow Magic" is also so low-key and so charming that you might not care.
Besides, it's refreshing to see a movie that actually invests some time in character development, as well as one that never stoops to low-brow antics. As a result, you can forgive its sometimes goopy moments.
As for the film's title, it refers to motion pictures, which were introduced in China as early as 1902. Enterprising Brit Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) is hoping to make his fortune there with his "Shadow Magic" show, featuring silent, black-and-white moving images.
Unfortunately for Ray, the locals aren't ready to trust a Westerner bringing with him a new "novelty." So he's fortunate to befriend Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), a young photographer who's fascinated with this rapidly advancing technology.
Together, they start a two-man operation Liu helps get people in the seats, and Ray provides the entertainment to keep them there.
However, it seems their problems are just beginning. Peking opera performer Lord Tan (Li Yushang) angrily denounces Ray as a fraud, while Liu secretly pines for Lord Tan's beautiful daughter, Ling (Xing Yufei) though he's betrothed to an older widow he doesn't love.
First-time filmmaker Ann Hu, who produced, directed and co-wrote the film with four others, has a lot of subplots to juggle. But almost all of the loose ends are wrapped up satisfactorily and without too much sentimentality.
She's fortunate to have a very good cast as well, though Harris occasionally tries too hard. Nevertheless, he and Xia do have chemistry, which helps guide the film through a couple of slow spots. (However, as good as the two leads are, the real star of the movie may be cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, who beautifully captures several Chinese landmarks, including the Great Wall.)
"Shadow Magic" is rated PG for brief violence (a slap, as well as an explosive mishap) and use of some mild profanities. Running time: 115 minutes.
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