Shadow Magic

Director: Ann Hu
Screenwriters: Ann Hu

Institute History

  • 2000 Sundance Film Festival


Beijing, 1902, at the Feng Tai Photo Shop. Master Ren prepares for a formal portrait of Lord Tan, China’s most famous opera star, while chief photographer Liu, neglecting his duties for the moment, tinkers with a Victrola. Lord Tan arrives with a retinue, including his beautiful daughter, Ling, who exchanges glances with Liu. Meanwhile, a foreigner, Raymond Wallace, has set up the first crude movie theatre, Shadow Magic, with which he hopes to make a fortune and return to England. Liu’s fascination with useless and disapproved foreign gadgetry leads him into a double life working for both Ren and Wallace.

Shadow Magic slowly attracts a following, to the detriment of classical art forms. Working for two masters, Liu jeopardizes the respect and friendship he enjoys with both and puts his love for Ling at risk as well. In a stroke of Shakespearean farce, all the plot strands are brought together when Lord Tan, Master Ren, and Wallace are invited to display their arts at a party for the dowager empress. There a frightful accident intervenes to change the evening’s ground rules completely, as loyalty, friendship, and character are put to the test.

With artful use of black-and-white images, sepia duotones, chiaroscuro, and color, director Ann Hu’s film is both a chronicle of the conflict between culture and technology and a study of the human relationships among the men and women caught up in it. Western and Confucian ideas of love, friendship, and duty clash, and, in the case of Liu and Ling, combine.

— Nicole Guillemet

Screening Details

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