“It’s like spending the whole night dreaming,” muses the oafish protagonist of the new Chinese film Electric Shadows—he’s talking about buy-one-ticket, all-night movie houses, but it’s an indication of his innocent dimness that he could be talking about sleep as well. Xiao Jiang’s debut film is also verily intoxicated with movieness—the very hyperbolic daydream we’re watching, and film history as experienced in the semi-developed, post–Cultural Revolution townships. Ripe and mushy as an October peach, the movie unabashedly fetishizes the old-school, Cinema Paradiso–ized magic of kino-kino-kino, from the hypnotic swatches of Chinese and Albanian (!) propaganda dramas to the simple fact of an outdoor theater (really, a sheet stretched on a village square), waiting for the sunset to come and go. It’s the kind of film in which the hand-rewinding of film reels is an act of courtship.
The first movie nut we meet, a guileless delivery boy (Xia Yu), has nothing on the second: a mute girl (Qi Zhongyang) he collides with by chance, whose apartment, we soon learn, is a bijou shrine to Chinese movie stars, and whose diary unfolds into the movie’s sigh-heavy, all-nougat center. The generational mini-saga begins with her starstruck mother (Jiang Yihong), a dogged showbiz wannabe, getting pregnant and being ostracized as a slut by the provincials; still, with her new daughter in tow, the infatuation with movies takes root as a lifestyle, and the local projectionist (Li Haibin) becomes a family confidante. Resist if you can (and you can’t if you have kids) the scene in which the pint-size heroine is told that a matinee idol is her real father, and a snippet of 35mm celluloid is handed to her as proof and for safekeeping.
Better yet—and far more fascinating than the eventual detours into serendipitous melodrama Xiao takes—is the sensational performance of little Wang Zhengjia as a snot-nosed, delinquent abuse-magnet our heroine befriends. He doesn’t last long enough in Xiao’s frothy tale, which goes oddly tragic without him. Electric Shadows is committed to movies-as-escape swoonery, but the script’s late disasters are also predicated on cinema and filmgoing, suggesting an ambivalence the rest of the film seems oblivious to. For every privileged moment (mother and daughter dancing in a yard of screen-like sheets hanging in the breeze), there’s a death or sociopathic act that says movies can ruin your life.