Like fusion cuisine, the budding genre of fusion movies relies heavily on presentation. A period piece set in Beijing at the beginning of the 20th century, Ann Hu’s Shadow Magic is properly picturesque but lacks subtlety and substance in blending Chinese and Western history, ideas, and cinematic conventions.
The film is an imaginative re-creation of the coming of motion pictures to China. Armed with a film camera, a projector, and a few dozen shorts (most by the Lumière brothers), Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris) arrives in Beijing to make his fortune. The Chinese scorn this English outsider, but Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), a photographer’s assistant, is captivated by Wallace’s Shadow Magic theater. Liu is a technology freak circa 1900. Although relatively poor, he has access to one of the only phonographs in Beijing. His initial fascination with the mechanics of moving pictures quickly develops into a visionary understanding of cinema’s metaphysical and political potential—not only as a means for gathering images from afar but also as a tool for self-reflection.
Happy to find a kindred spirit, Wallace makes Liu his partner. But Liu’s involvement with Shadow Magic is viewed as a betrayal by his boss and mentor, Master Ren (Liu Peiqi), his father (Wang Jingming), who has arranged for him to marry a wealthy widow, and Ling (Xing Yufei), the young woman he actually loves. To complicate matters, Wallace tells him that only by making history as China’s first filmmaker can he hope to win Ling.
Shadow Magic was shot on the soundstages of the Beijing Film Studio and made use of its extensive collection of costumes, sets, and props. Hu opted to re-create the artificial lighting and confined settings of a period movie rather than to attempt a realistic depiction of turn-of-the-century Beijing. The choice is logical for a film about filmmaking, but something is awry in the overall tone. With a few exceptions—most notably the sharp-tongued Harris and the guarded Liu Peiqi—the actors mug as if they were performing for 10-year-olds. Most egregious are the crowds of extras who alternate between clichéd expressions of childlike wonder and disappointment. It’s as if Hu didn’t trust a contemporary audience to accept that the magic of cinema is not dependent on stars or special effects, but is based in its essential power to capture the living and quicken the dead.
Hu pays homage to Man With the Movie Camera in several sequences, but Shadow Magic doesn’t approach the wit, intellectual scope, dazzling editing, and daring cinematography of Dziga Vertov’s masterwork. It’s more in tune with the cloying nostalgia of Cinema Paradiso, or rather the truncated version of Giuseppe Tornatore’s film released by Miramax. Sony Pictures Classics is opening Shadow Magic in time to capitalize on the Oscar publicity for its unprecedented fusion success, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But Shadow Magic is a slighter film, and its awkward narrative never takes flight.
Beautiful Creatures starts out like Thelma & Louise but devolves into a gender-bent addendum to the recent spate of British gangster flicks that hedge their brutality with satire. A tale of female revenge, it strikes back not at men per se but at the filmmaking trend typified by Guy Ritchie’s machismo-spewing Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.
On the run from her vicious, drug-addicted boyfriend, Tony (Iain Glen), Dorothy (Susan Lynch) and her big white dog, Pluto (easily the most beautiful creature on the screen), come upon Petula (Rachel Weisz), who’s being smacked around by her mate, Brian (Tom Mannion). Coming to Petula’s defense, Dorothy clobbers her abuser over the head with a handy metal pipe. The two women drag the unconscious Brian back to Dorothy’s apartment, where he dies in the bathtub.
As they desperately try to get rid of the corpse, Pluto jogs their imaginations by treating the dead man as a chew toy, depositing his ring finger—with ring in place—at Dorothy’s feet. They mail the bloody digit, with an anonymous ransom note demanding a million pounds for Brian’s safe return, to Ronnie (Maurice Roeves), Brian’s even more sadistic gangster brother. Their dangerous game hits a snag when Detective-Inspector Hepburn (Alex Norton), the most twisted of the film’s quartet of menacing males, discovers that Brian is already dead. But rather than arresting the conspirators, he demands a piece of the ransom—and of Petula as well.
Skittering about nervously on spike heels, Dorothy and Petula seem like the very women for whom the term “birds” was coined. But they exhibit a resilience and ingenuity belied by their empty-headed demeanor. All but unrecognizable in a platinum blond wig, Weisz exhibits a hitherto undisclosed gift for physical comedy. She’s Geena Davis to Lynch’s Susan Sarandon: Lynch’s pre-Raphaelite features, her angular body, and the dark timbre of her Irish-accented voice lend a haunted undertone even to her broadest double-takes.
Beautiful Creatures doesn’t aspire to the gravity of Thelma & Louise, a film about sisterhood and an existential freedom that once tasted is worth giving up your life for. Dorothy and Petula leave a bloodier trail than Thelma and Louise did, but because the men in this film are unmitigated scum and the two women have only a glimmering of self-consciousness about their actions, there probably won’t be diatribes against them. On the other hand, Beautiful Creatures fails to capture the deep friendship that made Thelma & Louise so inspiring to women. The exigencies of the plot keep Dorothy and Petula running on separate tracks for too much of the movie, and their bond is barely established.
Director Bill Eagles manages to convey the extremity of the women’s everyday brutalization without losing track of the movie’s jaunty tone. Beautiful Creatures is set in the dank housing projects and garish suburbs of Glasgow. Bad relationships aside, the look of the place is enough to make you root for the women to get out.