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.
Liu's desire to learn the "foreigner's trick" also jeopardizes his relationship with the woman he loves Ling (Xing Yufei), the daughter of Lord Tan. Lord Tan is concerned that the "Shadow Magic" show and its Western influence will steal away his audience. Liu knows that he would be prevented from seeing Ling if his alliance with Raymond became public.
The conflict comes to a climax at the birthday celebration of the Empress Dowager. Lord Tan is to sing for her, Master Ren is to take her photograph, and Raymond is to show his films. Liu must choose between assisting Master Ren or assisting Raymond. He chooses Raymond and is disowned by Master Ren and his father.
On the momentous day, amidst all the pomp, the players are admitted to the Forbidden City. With much at stake for all involved, Raymond and Liu are commanded to begin the screening. The Empress loves the movies and the rest of the audience is enraptured. However, an accident occurs, producing tragic consequences for both men. Liu loses hope of ever accomplishing his dreams becoming a filmmaker and marrying Ling and Raymond is expelled from the country.
Nonetheless, Liu's spirit is not vanquished. After receiving a package from Raymond, Liu stakes all he has on one last effort to convince Peking of the beauty of "Shadow Magic."
"Shadow Magic" is produced, directed, and co-written by New York-based Chinese-American filmmaker Ann Hu ("Dream and Memory"), whose background drew her to the story of cultures coming together. Hu's immersion in both worlds greatly influenced her approach to the storytelling, which, while drawing upon both eastern and western sources, consciously evokes the rich colors and operatic tradition of Chinese art prior to the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.
Truly an international production, the film was produced by C & A Productions, Schulberg Productions, Post Production Playground, China Film, and marking a historic first both the Beijing Film Studio ("The Last Emperor," Farewell My Concubine") and Taiwan's Central Motion Picture Corporation ("The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman"). Additional funding was provided by Road Movies, a Berlin based company founded by acclaimed director Wim Wenders and producer Ulrich Felsberg that has dozens of internationally recognized productions to its credit, including "Wings of Desire," "Beyond the Clouds," "Buena Vista Social Club," and most recently, "Million Dollar Hotel," starring Mel Gibson.
"Shadow Magic" is the first official co-production between these film entities, one from the Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan, and the other from the People's Republic of China," says co-producer Sandra Schulberg. "The fact that these two film bodies have come together to support this film is a testament not only to the story of the film itself, which is about breaking down all kinds of barriers, but also to Ann Hu's ability to bring people together in a way I've rarely seen anyone do."
The clash between Eastern and Western culture and the resulting transformation of both reverberates deeply in the director's own life. Eleven years old in 1966, Hu was among millions of Chinese youngsters involved in the "Red Guards" movement during Mao Tse-Tung's Cultural Revolution. Even though her father had been a Communist leader, her parents were sent to labor camps and Hu was forced to support herself and her younger brother. "I had always been too stubborn in my own ideas growing up, which is probably not a good thing in any society. I was not terribly likable," Hu admits. "But I didn't deserve the kind of persecution I went through. I became a total outcast from my group."
For her "nonconformist style," Hu was frequently humiliated rocks were thrown at her while she was forced to apologize for her actions. Her worries were so overwhelming that her hair fell out. Yet Hu has found something to appreciate from her experience.
"There was no schooling, no parents controlling our lives, no rules. I learned to become my own little master," she says. "I learned to fight for my life. So in that sense," she continues, "I learned to develop a kind of blind confidence, and did not respect any kind of authority for a long time as a way of self-protection. I'm not going to be intimidated by anyone... and that is one of the most powerful traits I developed on a human level." This attitude ensured Hu's survival during China's devastating, ten year Cultural Revolution, one of the largest orchestrated social upheavals in human history. Fortunately, Hu's parents survived their deportation and returned home.
Having taught herself English, Hu passed China's first college entrance exam, and in 1979 at the age of 24 found herself in the vanguard of Chinese students allowed to come to the United States to study. Graduating from New York University with a major in business administration in 1985, Hu recalls that "I took the courses that stressed capitalism because I never really knew what it meant when I lived in China."
Looking back, Hu acknowledges that "without the Revolution I don't think I could deal with my American life with such ease. Compared to what I went through from age eleven to age twenty, whatever I have today is a gift."
Hu's unique, dual perspective is deeply woven into "Shadow Magic." "The film provided me with great opportunities to tell a story to people of both worlds," she says. "I am Chinese and American. We are really very much alike. The film gives me a chance to get that message across. Cinema, much like food actually more so than food has this cross-cultural appeal."
Hu's first 16mm film, "Dream and Memory," dealt with the experience of a Chinese painter living in New York with his African-American girlfriend. Completed in 1992, the film opened in New York to notable press attention.
It was this first film which convinced producer Sandra Schulberg to become involved with Hu's first full-length feature film. "When I was first asked to meet Ann, I was skeptical that I could become involved in the project," says Schulberg, "but then I fell in love with the script. Because my grandfather, BP Schulberg, was a motion picture pioneer author of photoplays for Edwin Porter and later producer of 'Wings,' the first silent film to win an Oscar the story touched me personally. I still had doubts about whether Ann could handle a movie on the scale of 'Shadow Magic.' After I saw 'Dream and Memory' my doubts vanished. That film demonstrated her ability to pull from the actors tender, deep performances and to tell a compelling story from a human and political point of view with very few resources. As a result, I found I couldn't resist trying to help her."
"Shadow Magic" was shot at the historic Beijing Film Studio, China's oldest and most prominent film studio, which houses some of the most elaborate costumes and props in the world, a fact on which the filmmakers counted heavily. Says Schulberg: "The extraordinary resources of the BFS are greatly responsible for this film looking as extravagant as it does and for the fact that we were able to make such an epic film on a modest budget.
While Schulberg remembers her first trip to Beijing as "overwhelming," she notes that there was something comforting about the Beijing film Studio: "When I went to the Studio, I immediately felt at home. As we went from department to department I realized once again that movies are a completely universal medium. That was extremely reassuring as I couldn't understand a word that anyone was saying."
Extensive research was done by the production into the early days of cinema, and special projectors and cameras were built for the film. Despite these efforts, the filmmakers found they had to deviate from historical fact. Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber was concerned that the light from Raymond's projector would not be bright enough to show up clearly on film, and she admits that artistic license was taken in order to light the film. Immersed in making a film about the primitive days of movie-making, the filmmakers felt like cinematic pioneers themselves. "We weren't able to see dailies in Beijing," she says, "so we had to trust our instincts that we were capturing just what we wanted on film."
The primarily Chinese crew proved to be a challenge for the filmmakers: "We had to learn how to combine the Western or American approach to filmmaking with that of the Chinese," says Schulberg. "In China, where the tradition in the last fifty years has been government- supported filmmaking, people are used to being able to take as much time as needed to shoot a great movie. It was quite a shock when we realized that the schedule was not broken down into a certain number of scenes to be shot each day. There was no sense of a daily goal or what speed you needed to move through the day."
Schreiber also found it difficult to work on a production in a language she didn't understand, but there were certain rewards. While American policies often prevented her from directly participating in the mechanics of the film, she remembers that "what was wonderful in China was that I did operate and so it made me very close to the subject... because I couldn't understand a word, I found I could tell a good performance simply by watching the emotions being expressed."
Like his peers, Jared Harris found working with a mostly Chinese crew to be an eye-opening experience: "On American film sets you would never, ever get the kind of informality in the way that people would come and talk to the actors or talk to the director," he says. "I thought it was fantastic and I loved it. On American movie sets the stars and the director have these concentric rings of people around them and they stop you from getting to them. In that way 'Shadow Magic' had a very relaxed atmosphere, which I enjoyed."
"The biggest difference was the language barrier," Harris continues. Expecting to have about a week to learn Chinese, upon arriving on the set, Harris discovered that he had only one day to master the language. He underwent a crash course in Mandarin pronunciation taught by an actor named Zhang Kang (his nickname was "King Kong"), who Harris later discovered was especially fond of a particular American star. "Zhang is a big fan of Robert DeNiro," Harris explains laughingly. "He taught me to say the lines the way DeNiro might have said them in 'Taxi Driver.' It was only when we got halfway through the scene that Zhang started to realize what the scene was really about and that we had done it completely wrong."
While Hu also worked closely with the crew at the Beijing Film Studio, she occasionally found herself at odds with both the production designer and the prop masters assigned to "Shadow Magic." Even though she wanted the film to look authentic, she did not want it to be suffocated by historical facts.
"The two propmasters had done similar period films a dozen times before, and they felt that preparing for my film was something they could do in their sleep," says the director. However, Hu and her co-workers had significant different visions of the past world they were to recreate. "They were totally puzzled at first: 'We never did street signs this way' or 'We don't think that the palace would use chairs of such style.' I then showed them old photos from books I had gathered and said, 'Look, the style I see is a derivation of this original design. I want to take off from there. This is a conscious choice of mine.'"
Despite these issues, cooperation between the director and her crew ultimately prevailed. "We were required to participate in the entire creative process and blend our knowledge with the director's vision," prop master Hou Yi recalls. "She would give us back something that totally shocked us we could see traces of our past in her designs, but she broke away from our past. As we completed the first few props and sets that were made per the director's instruction, we saw the West and East coming together in front of our own eyes."
This true-to-life process of cooperation reflects a similar motif underlying the film itself. One character, Raymond, learns "about this process of give and take" through his journey, but he learns it too late. To penetrate another culture, you must let the other side have its way; then you can have your way. Otherwise neither of you will have any way at all."
"I hope the personal experience of making this movie gets replicated nationally and internationally as people watch it," says Schulberg. "I feel not only that our experience of making the movie informed the film subliminally in and out of the sprocket holes in ways you cannot put your finger on but somehow the chemistry of the co-production infiltrated the chemistry of the film itself. I realize that sounds mystical, but I believe it. And in this case, the story itself is about the fusion of two cultures. The 'shadow magic' that came out of Ann's vision and the actors' work and the crew's work bring this script to life in a way that I could only have dreamed."