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Peking, 1902: the Empress Dowager presides over the crumbling Qing Dynasty, which is nine years away from being swept into history's dustbin. One of its dilemmas is the rising flood of Western influences and ideas. Which should be embraced? Which should be proscribed? To get a better idea, the Empress Dowager decides to go to the movies -- or, more precisely, to have an American film shown to her in the ornate Forbidden City.That is the tumultuous and transitional world portrayed in Shadow Magic, a first feature by director Ann Hu, who knows a bit about tumult and transitions herself. At age 11, she was a Red Guard in Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Now 44 and based in New York City, Hu has created a film that will be shown at this month's Sundance Film Festival, the famed Utah showcase for rising movie makers. Her work not only joins a tide of Chinese films reaching the West, but it also uses movies as a metaphor for the irrevocable changes Western culture has brought to her homeland. The idea of Western technology being introduced into an ancient civilization, says Hu, was very intriguing to me.

To tell that tale, Hu went back to the history books and found the story of Liu Jinglun, a photographer at the Feng Tai Photo Shop in Beijing, who in 1902 came under the thrall of a British showman hoping to make quick money entertaining people with moving pictures. Liu and Feng Tai went on to make a cinematic version of the opera Dingjun Mountain. It was the first narrative film ever made in China.
Hu's adaptation brings some operatic twists to that real-life tale. Liu, her protagonist, is a humble assistant in the Feng Tai Photo Shop with a fascination for such Western novelties as Victrolas. His boss, Master Ren, believes instead that modern devices have no place in traditional Chinese society. Liu meets Raymond Wallace, a British nickelodeon peddlar, who introduces Liu to the shadow magic of cinema. Liu hides his friendship with Wallace from his employer. The shop assistant's ardor for cinema also threatens his relationship with Ling, the woman he loves. For Ling is the daughter of a Chinese opera star, Lord Tan, who resents the shadow magic for stealing away his audience.

Major conflict erupts at a birthday celebration for the Empress Dowager held in the Forbidden City. Lord Tan is there to sing; Master Ren is to commemorate the occasion by taking photographs; Wallace has also been invited to show his moving pictures. Liu chooses to assist the Briton, for which he is disowned by his employer.

Then the screening begins. It's a Western silent film, and the images of foreigners captivate everyone, including the Empress Dowager. In the midst of triumph, however, the projector explodes, filling the royal chamber with smoke and seriously injuring Liu. The enraged Empress spares Liu's life but expels Wallace from the country. In the midst of Liu's despair, a package arrives from Wallace containing footage they had shot in the streets of Peking and on the Great Wall. Liu uses his savings to build a new projector and, for the first time, publicly shows a film with Chinese people on the screen. Audiences are awed.

Actor Xia Yu, 23, who plays Liu, sees relevance in the photographer's story. He defied conventions and taboos and embraced new ideas, says Xia, who won a Best Actor award at the 1994 Venice Film Festival for his role in In the Heat of the Sun. Liu tried to learn English and to use advanced Western cameras. He was like a big fly who keeps bumping against the window. One day he may die -- or he may fly through a hole. Our society badly needs people like Liu if we are to make further progress.

Hu produced and directed the film, raising the $5 million budget from U.S. and German investors as well as from the film studios of both China and Taiwan -- probably a first, considering the hostility between Beijing and Taipei. The fact that these two film bodies have come together to support this film, says Sandra Schulberg, a co-producer of the film, is a testament not only to the story itself -- which is about breaking down all kinds of barriers -- but to Ann Hu's ability to bring people together.

It also brought Hu back to China after an eventful personal journey. In 1966, she was one of millions of Chinese youngsters involved in the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. When her parents were sent to labor camps, she was forced to support herself and her younger brother. In her late teens, she learned English and passed the first college entrance examinations held after the Cultural Revolution fizzled out. In 1979, she was among the initial wave of Chinese students allowed to travel to the United States to study. She didn't return home but instead took up a course in business administration and got a job. In the late 1980s, Hu decided to study filmmaking at New York University. Her only movie to date, a 16-mm experimental work called Dream and Memory, dealt with the experience of a fictional Chinese painter living in New York with his African-American girlfriend. Completed in 1992, the film was shown at the Berlin and Cannes film festivals, as well as in commercial theaters in New York.

Returning to Beijing with a $5 million budget for a period film was a dream come true for Hu -- especially when she was allowed to shoot at the Beijing Film Studio, China's oldest and most prominent, which has a famed collection of costumes and props. Hu's crew did extensive research on the Qing period and the early days of cinema. Yet at times, they had to deviate from historical accuracy. Worried that the light from old-style projectors was not bright enough to show up on film, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber took artistic license. The beam shown in the film is probably much brighter than what existed at the turn of the century, she says. And some of the rigors of working in Beijing made the filmmakers feel like cinematic pioneers themselves. The largely Chinese crew had a far slower pace than their American counterparts. We weren't even able to see dailies in Beijing, says Schreiber of the normal practice of viewing quickly processed versions of the day's shooting. So we had to trust our instincts that we were capturing just what we wanted on film. Hu and her crew seem to have succeeded. The movie received an enthusiastic response from an audience composed mostly of filmmakers and local journalists in Beijing two weeks ago. After the viewing, Hu went on stage for a dialogue with the audience. She asked them: What stood out as the film's theme? In reply, a uniformed military officer shouted, That we don't need a Great Wall! The tale told in Shadow Magic is almost 100 years old, but its message still reverberates in China today.