Sat, Jan 20, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Finding the magic among moving shadows

With a quirky look at the roots of cinema in China, Shadow Magic has secured Ann Hu a place among the current crop of Asia's up-and-coming international film directors

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Ann Hu (胡安) looks the picture of success, self-assurance and chic in her black embroidered Chinese-style cotton-padded jacket, with a fluffy pink collar. "After so many years living in America, after so much hardship, I didn't want to be just an American business woman," she said, explaining her move from an executive position with a Wall Street firm to becoming an independent filmmaker.

Her move from one high risk profession to another has been rewarded with the considerable success that has greeted the release of Shadow Magic (西洋鏡), her first feature film. The East-meets-West drama about the roots of cinema in China at the turn of the last century has received rave reviews at film festivals throughout Asia, being selected for the competition category at the Tokyo International Film Festival last November, and winning two Golden Horse Awards (金馬獎) from among its seven nominations. In China, the film was the second highest grossing movie last year.

After several years as an executive at a high-power New York multinational firm, Hu's career took an abrupt turn in 1987 when she met director Chen Kai-ge (陳凱歌), maker of Farewell My Concubine, who was then a visiting scholar at her alma mater New York University. The then wildly famous director exposed her to new forms of expression that she had previously ignored, engrossed as she was in the world of business.

Three years after Hu first met Chen, she engaged in deep artistic soul searching in 1990, trying her hand at writing, painting and photography. Then, after a two-month course at the NYU film school, she settled on filmmaking as her chosen mode of expression.

One of the pivotal events of her decision to become a filmmaker was a chat with Chen in which the director described a scene that he wished to shoot. He depicted the scene in this way: somewhere in Sha'anxi Province (陜西省), the Yellow River narrows at a bend to the width of the spout of a teapot. At this point, the water becomes a torrent. On the riverbank, in sight of this torrent, is a food stand that sells noodles topped with chili. When hot oil is poured over the noodles, the whole dish sizzles. The person who dares make the first crossing at this dangerous bend for a bowl of noodles wins the respect of all.

For Hu, the excitement of this scene was something she could not get out of her mind. "From the excitement I felt [about this scene], I knew I'd found the thing I wanted to do," she said. As it turns out, the scene appears in Chen's Life On A String (邊走邊唱), shot in 1991.

Spanning the divide

Dealing with cross-cultural themes, as Shadow Magic does, seems an obvious course for Hu's movies to take, given her experience as a Chinese-American. Despite its historical subject matter -- looking at the introduction of motion pictures to China in 1906 -- there is also a sub-drama about the mixture of curiosity and resistance that imperial China felt toward encroaching Western powers and culture.

Jared Harris, who starred in Chinese Box (1997) and I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), plays English filmmaker Raymond Wallace who brings his silent films to Beijing. He meets a photographer named Liu Zhonglun (劉京倫) -- played by Xia Yu (夏雨) -- who becomes Wallace's collaborator in the former's ambition to promote cinema, called "shadow magic" by the conservative and deeply suspicious Chinese public. Liu brings trouble and hostility upon himself and sets up obstacles to love by ignoring the objections of his father and his boss toward his dabbling with the "Western stuff" of movies.

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