WTF ASIA 109: Shadow Magic (2000)
No, this is not a movie about elder scrolls, but about early films.
I could not find this movie online. There are Youtube links, but none that I saw look trustworthy. Maybe your local library system has a copy? Approximately 115 minutes.
It is Beijing, 1902. Liu works as the main photographer in Master Renâ€™s photo shop. While a few of the more poor locals view photography with superstitious suspicion, the wealthy of the city have their photographs taken as a sign of their status. Liu, however, has his sights set on something elseâ€¦well, his ears, at least. Master Ren catches him messing around with a phonograph and tells him to do his job. Still obsessed with the phonograph, Liu takes it to the photographing area and plays a recording of a Western Opera to the shopâ€™s customer. The customer, by the way, is Peking Opera star Lord Tan, and he is not impressed with the ostentatious and unrefined Western music, putting on a little opera performance himself. Then some English guy elbows his way through a crowd of onlookers to crash the photo session to advertise, in horrible Chinese, his moving picture show. Liu, who speaks a little English, seems interested in these pictures that move. Master Liu tolerates his presence for a while, but then gives him some coins to leave, and then has him thrown out of the studio so that he can take proper photographs of Lord Tan.
The Englishman, Raymond, finds his way to the building that he has purchased to set up his film theater, which he calls Shadow Magic. He starts yelling at the people outside to come in for five coins, but nobody seems interested in another crazy contraption from the West. Nobody except for Liu. Raymond, still smarting over getting thrown out of the photo shop, tries to get everyone except for Liu to go inside. Then Liu calls Raymond a liar and a braggart. An angered Raymond allows Liu in just to prove him wrong. Liu is utterly amazed at the footage that he is seeing, first trying to interact with the images of Western people doing stuff and then trying to go behind the curtain where Raymond is. Raymond pushes him out, claiming that he could never understand how the Shadow Magic works. Liu actually does figure it out pretty quickly, just in time to gleefully show a spinning image contraption to his his co-workers at the photoshop and their customer, Widow Jiang.
Everyone is confused at Liuâ€™s eccentric behavior and Master Ren is upset at his lack of professionalism. Master Ren, his wife, and Liuâ€™s father have decided that marriage would help temper Liuâ€™s disorderliness. And Widow Jiang is the best prospect. Liu is quite reluctant about this, particularly because he has developed a bit of a crush on Ling, the daughter of Lord Tan.
After work the next day (or maybe he just ran off during work), Liu takes the phonograph to the street outside of Raymondâ€™s Shadow Magic theater and plays it while telling people to go inside. Raymond is not all that happy to see Liu again, but Liu gives him a bunch of money and points out that a bunch of people have gone inside. They are as amazed and impressed as Liu was, until technical difficulties turn the screen black. Liu manages to find a temporary work around and the show is back on. After the successful show is over, Raymond tries to give Liu some compensation, but Liu says that he wants a job. Raymond, somewhat reluctant over having to share his money with someone else, agrees to let Liu come work for him the next day.
The next day, even more people go to see Shadow Magic, despite protests that attending this foreign show is an act of disloyalty to Lord Tan. This crowd is a larger and a bit louder than the last, providing commentary about what is going on. One person even says that the images show a whole different side to the Western people, as she was used to seeing only soldiers. After the show Liu notices Ling coming out of the theater and invites him backstage to show her how the film works. She asks when he is so obsessedÂ with these Western tricks, but he says that these are wonderful inventions regardless of their origins. Liu then admits that he has feelings for Ling, but she feels awkward about the whole thing and promptly leaves.
Some time later, Master Ren and Liu go to Lord Tanâ€™s home to bring him his photographs. Liu and Ling share another awkward glance while her father admires the pictures. Then a man comes in to tell Lord Tan about this Western show in town that plays ghostly tricks in the dark and has many locals under its spell. Lord Tan does not seem to treat this Shadow Magic as a threat to his ancient art, even though he was told that Peking Opera sales have gone down just before Master Ren and Liu arrived. When the man says that it was thanks to the help of a young Chinese man (not knowing that it is Liu) that Shadow Magic got popular, Lord Tan responds by saying how pathetic it is that Chinese culture will be destroyed by its own people. If Liu had not known already, it is here that he is being pulled in three directions: his work at the photo shop, his dreams with Shadow Magic, and his infatuation with Ling.
That night, as Raymond is showing an editing trick to Liu, he accidentally shows him footage of himself with his wife and children. Â This gets them to talk about their respective situations. Liu says that, though he wishes to marry Ling, he has been setup to marry Widow Jiang and is too poor to protest. He had thought that Shadow Magic could perhaps increase his fortunes, but now he realizes that Shadow Magic threatens Lingâ€™s family business. Raymond reveals that he is broke and his wife left him, and he has staked everything on promoting Shadow Magic in China.
Liu is late to the photo shop, but makes the excuse that he was taking care of his father and busy preparing for the wedding. Master Ren is sympathetic, recognizing the Liu is not all that fond of Widow Jiang. He says that compromise is not so bad. Master Ren was not happy about his arranged marriage either when he was young, but his wifeâ€™s family provided the money for his photo shop and now he has something to pass down to his son. This message is undercut a bit when Master Ren invites him to dinner only to find that his wife does not want to hang out with his little workers; it turns out her motive for helping to arrange Liuâ€™s marriage is simply to have someone to keep him under control.
This movie is a co-production of companies from China AND Taiwan, along with Germany, Australia, and the United States. The director, Ann Hu, actually lived in the United States for around two decades before making this movie.
There are a few themes of this movie. One is the interplay between art, money, and popularity. There are three types of art displayed in this movie: portrait photography, the moving picture, and Peking Opera. The Western Opera on the phonograph could arguably be a fourth, but it is not as prominent as the other three. The photo shop is a new fad that has gained traction with members of the high class, is kept afloat by members of the high class, but is run by the poor. Master Ren has had to compromise whatever his original vision was. Shadow Magic is brand new, foreign, and purely a money making scheme run by misfits on the margins of society. Keep in mind that this is 1902: film was only a few years old even in the West and those traveling to Asia probably did not have copies of A Trip to the Moon. The Peking Opera is a symbol of tradition and class; it is both high art and mass entertainment. While Lord Tan may be rich and can do what he wants, he is still not immune to the tides of revenue. It is somewhat notable that, although the movieâ€™s director is a woman, all of the makers and promoters of art in movie are men while those holding the purse strings and actual power are usually women.
Another theme is the balance between the past and the future. It is unclear exactly when film was introduced in China. The internet says that it was in 1896 in Shanghai, but that does not necessarily negate the introduction of film to Beijing in 1902. Either way, film was still in its infancy. It was untested, experimental; it was the future, as Raymond said. Now, while I usually do not want to spoil the second half of movies in these posts, it turns out that Liu starts to view film less as the technology of the future, but as a record keeper of the past. This is where the backstory of the director has some impact on the movie itself.
Ann Hu came of age during the Cultural Revolution, when everything both traditional and Western were tossed aside for Maoist orthodoxy. Hu, however, was privileged enough to get a glimpse of Western entertainment, which inspired her to leave the country as soon as she could. This movie, her first, is about movies, set during a time when her homeland was about to experience massive changes. Westerners had been traipsing around China with ease for at least sixty years by 1902. There were some anti-foreign rebellions, with a recent one being in 1899. Still, Liu has noticed that change had been going on for a long time already. Change is inevitable in history. Sometimes it is slow in places; other times it is fast. Liu correctly believed that big changes were coming soon. Aside from making money while making peopleâ€™s jaws drop, his goal eventually became one of recording what China was like in 1902 for the sake of keeping a visual record for when what existed in 1902 no longer existed. Portraits of the wealthy would not suffice, but films of everyday people might do the trick. Part of this China would be gone with the Republican Revolution in less than ten years. By the time that Ann Hu came of age, the China of Liuâ€™s time was seen as a relic of the past to be rejected and forgotten.
These days, there are many films coming out of China, with many of them focused on presenting the past. Are they at all accurate? No. Neither are historical films from the West, though. Neither is this film, either, and it even presents itself as a fictionalization. What it is is an attempt to make sense of what it could have been like back then, informed by modern sensibilities and experiences, and maybe trying to temporarily bring back what was lost. The past is gone forever; all that we have are memories, reenactments, and records. And many of the records are also lost to time. So maybe things like this movie are as good as we have at the moment. But maybe that is okay, since this movie is quite good. In the meantime, hold on to those selfies and video logsÂ that you have made. For better, worse, lateral, and uncertain, the world is quickly changing all around us right now, and those things may very well be the best records of now that we have.
WTF ASIA 110: Thread of Lies (South Korea: 2014, approx. 115 minutes
On the Internet
WTF ASIA 111: 15 Park Avenue (India: 2005, approx. 125 minutes)
Free on Youtube