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Jack Mathews - New York Daily News
The name of the first person to show a motion picture in China is unknown, but Ann Hu's remarkable "Shadow Magic" offers convincing speculation on how it might have gone down.

In 1902, Westerners with rudimentary projectors traveled through the East, setting up makeshift theaters and corralling the locals in for vicarious adventures.

One can only imagine how people dazzled by photography reacted when life-size images began to move. In "Shadow Magic," a Beijing crowd nearly panics as a train steams toward them onscreen.

Hu does a brilliant job in her debut, expanding her simple premise to include the East-West culture clash, and in subtle, intimate ways suggesting the role that film would play in the meshing of tradition with technology.

British character actor Jared Harris is Raymond Wallace, an ambitious vagabond hoping to score a quick fortune. Not speaking the language, he needs help, and gets it from Liu (Xia Yu), a young dreamer who works for a portrait photographer.

Liu takes one look at Wallace's moving images and throws himself into herding citizens into the theater. The two men help each other understand their respective cultures. But Wallace is soon advising Liu in matters of the heart, convincing him to resist his arranged marriage to an older woman of means and to pursue his real love for an opera star's daughter (Xing Yufei).

The subplot verges on cliche, but Hu has the good judgment to find an untold story and the historical detail she puts into the film gives it the burnished quality of memoir, a movie-movie about the movies.

Jan Stuart - Newsday
For most of us, the ritual of gathering in a large dark room to watch light bounce from a screen has become so commonplace, it is impossible to conjure the sense of awe that surely overwhelmed those experiencing moving pictures for the first time. The shock and wonder of the new is at the heart of "Shadow Magic," an opulent page-turner of a movie that offers a romantic vision of cinema's dawning day in China.

"Shadow Magic" is set in the Peking of 1902, a transitional time for a tradition-bound culture. "Our city is changing every day," says one character.

"They say the day will come when men can cut off their pigtails and woman can unbind their feet." Enter Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris), an enterprising Englishman who sets up a Spartan movie house in the middle of the city, hoping to seduce the locals with a primitive picture show of daily life in his homeland.

Initially, the city-dwellers are skeptical and resistant, no more so than the resident Peking opera star Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), who knows competition when he smells it. But Raymond finds an ally and an eventual business partner in young Ęphotographer Liu Jinglun (the beguiling Xia Yu), who is so dazzled by this new art form that he risks his secure job with a prestige studio to moonlight at Raymond's "shadow magic" show.

Produced with ravishing period costumes and exacting detail by first-time director Ann Hu, "Shadow Magic" appends an inevitable love story to this pioneering saga that matches the photographer with Lord Tan's beautiful daughter, Ling (Xing Yufei). The film claims to be based on real-life incidents, but Hu embroiders her scenario with archetypal characters and melodramatic incidents that would seem to suggest that Hollywood corrupted popular art in Peking long before a garrulous Englishman with a movie projector.

What keeps this storybook panorama grounded in the real world is the alliance that evolves between Raymond and Liu Jinglun as they feel their way about an unpredictable and potentially incendiary new technology. The petulant, scruffy Harris and the well-mannered, endlessly resourceful Xia make an East-West odd couple joined at the hip by reservoirs of nerviness. They are the original movie nerds, reminding us that the obsessive pull of motion pictures, like gravity, recognizes no borders.