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'Electric Shadows' tells a story about a girl named Ling Ling and her
friend Mao Dabing against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution in
China. The film starts with Dabing (Xia Yu), a teenager who loves
movies, accidentally falling into a brick wall with his bicycle. The
walls collapses, a girl picks up a brick and smashes Dabing on the
head. Then the girl, who seems unable to speak, asks Dabing to feed her
fish while she has to stay with the police. He agrees and in the girl's
apartment he finds her diary, learning that she is indeed his old
friend Ling Ling (Qi Zhongyang).
While he is reading her story we see the images, starting with Ling Ling's mother, how she always wanted to be a famous actress or singer, how Ling Ling was born as an unwanted child, how her mother wanted to end her own life but due circumstances changes her mind. Ling Ling's mother becomes a caring mother who wants nothing but the best for her daughter. Dabing enters the story, at first a bully for Ling Ling but after a while they become best friends. In the meanwhile Ling Ling's mother spends a lot of time with Uncle Pan, the town's movie operator. This is of course where the kids find their love for the movies, and Ling Ling's mother finds the love for a new man.
I should say nothing more about the story. We understand things will get complicated since Dabing and Ling Ling did not recognize each other when he was smacked with the brick. We also see that some terrible things must have happened to Ling Ling. All those things are for you to discover with this terrific film from first-time director Xiao Jiang. In a way this film is about loving movies, the way 'Cinema Paradiso' is that. The director told the audience that she was honored with this comparison, but it seems only right. 'Electric Shadows' is original in its own way, but shows a lot of older Chinese pictures, honoring them. The performances ask again for comparison with 'Cinema Paradiso'. The adults are good, especially Ling Ling's mother, but the child performers here are the best thing. The film shows them most of the time when they are around six years old. The way kids around that age say anything that comes to mind is perfectly portrayed here, with two effective kids for Ling Ling and Dabing. Much of the humor in the film comes from them and their moments together.
Although the final moments of the film play in a conventional way the scenes work. Everything comes together, making 'Electric Shadows' a real finished picture, accessible for larger audiences than a lot of other Asian films. The film has its flaws. It shifts back and forth in time where it does not really have to, like the director just chose a couple of moments to do so. The same with the narration. Sometimes we hear Dabing and his life story, sometimes we hear him reading her diary, sometimes we hear Ling Ling herself like she is reading or writing her diary. Both things do not really matter, but show how hard it is to make the right choices, especially when you direct a film for the first time.
ELECTRIC SHADOWS is such a little treasure that I want to plug it in to
every film lover I know. The comparison to Italy's "Cinema Paradiso" is
apt in the most important way because it's all about how movies enrich
the life of a child. In other ways, the film is so vastly different
from writer/director Giuseppi Tornatore's lovely work, which is
quintessentially Italian: big with emotions, architecture, color,
performance, length and budget. In this short and seemingly simple
Chinese film, lack is everywhere, from the missing father to the lives
these characters lead: where they live and work, what they have to eat
and how they get around (the bus in which sister escorts her baby
brother is a perfect case in point).
Yet thanks to a style that is warm, honest, rich and--especially--gentle, a story full of quite awful happenings is told in such a way that whatever director/co-writer Jiang Xiao offers us, including some pretty heavy coincidence, we gratefully accept because all of it works beautifully toward her goal of celebrating film, family and friendship. Her achievement is all the more surprising because the movie--her first, and filmed, it would appear, on an awfully small budget--starts out simply and charmingly then quietly builds until it reaches a conclusion that ties everything together without a whiff of heavy-handed melodrama or overkill. In the Special Features, the director explains her purpose, how she came to film-making, and her hope to do something worthy for the major anniversary of Chinese film. I can't imagine a better gift to the country, its growing film industry, or the widening world of international film lovers. Enjoy!
Maybe it was because I was on a flight from Beijing where I fell in love with the country and the city, or maybe because I compared it to the other Chinese film they showed on the plane (it was horrible). Anyway, I loved this movie. In contrast to most American movies I too often see, this film had a story that captured you from the start, and never let you go. Add to this clever kid actors performing and acting their age (unlike 30-year old Dakotas or Haley Joels), and otherwise good performing all the way. No explosions, car chases or guns being fired, but more capturing and exciting than most films containing those types of elements. I can't wait until I get to see the next movie with this director, these actors or actually anything with anyone involved in the making of if this movie. Did I mention that the photography/scenery is stunning?
I'm not entirely sure why I passed on this film when it landed in my
city. Perhaps it was a busy schedule or perhaps it was the blatant
comparison to the Italian "Cinema Paradiso" in the advertising used for
With all due respect to the "CP", while the two films share an early common thread of a young child with a passion for movies (with a requisite "single mom" in a small town), these two films should not really be compared side by side. The desire and temptation toward comparison would be deceptive and misleading to most expectations of most potential viewers. Indeed, they are very different stories. Nor should "CP" used as a benchmark for all films which have a child character that enjoys going to the movies. Not that it isn't without merit, but, rather, again, this is a different film with a very different feel. The Italian film was meant to have a big emotional bang; this Chinese film, however, goes the restrained route of slow, emotional realization.
We meet our heroine, Ling Ling, as she commits what appears to be an act of senseless violence-- striking a bicycle-riding man on the head with a brick. Then as the wounded victim (Mao Dabing) confronts his assailant we are utterly confounded by her silent, dogged insistence that he go to her apartment and feed her fish-- it is she who should be owing him redress, not vice versa. Dumbfounded, the victim agrees and there begins a journey back into the events that led up to Ling Ling's seemingly incomprehensible action against him. It is this backward shift of gears that forces a discovery of character revelation which goes beyond a simple childhood love of film.
As Dabing sifts through Ling Ling's possessions (most notably her diaries), he comes to learn how life sometimes has a peculiar way of coming full circle; events which may seem random and senseless are not always necessarily what they seem to be. And, in many ways, as the plot unfolds, this is actually a small film about forgiveness and reconciliation. In this respect, it seemed vaguely reminiscent of the Chinese film "Seventeen Years".
Enjoyable little film -- a tale of family, friendship, loss, and reconciliation-- which should be allowed to stand on its own merits and not be unnecessarily thrown into a comparison with other films for the sake of marketing. This a decidedly Chinese film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Many who have seen this movie instinctively placed it in the category
of movies that talk about watching movies (in this particularly case,
Chinese movies in the earlier eras of movie-making in the country).
Some go as far as saying that one's enjoyment of Electric Shadows will
be significantly reduced if one's not familiar with the movies referred
to. I don't think that is the case. Although watching movies does
feature prominently in ES, even more important is the story of a mother
and a child during some turbulent times.
The original title in the Mainland is "Movie memories" while the local Chinese title given is a more literary "Images of dreams from childhood". The debut of its director, this movie is unsophisticated, sometimes contrived, but also fresh and affecting in some parts. If you have seen enough movies, you would have come across its the general structure a chance encounter of the protagonists that turn out to share some childhood memories. There is also a double narration set-up, first as a voice over from MAO Dabing ("big soldier" who was "Xiaobing", or "small soldier" when he was a kid). Then it carries on as voice over of Ling-ling, a childhood buddy that Dabing bumped into (almost literally) again, as adults.
I am not going to spend time on the rather far-fetched coincidences, contrivances and unexplained plot holes. The real story, the flashback told basically through Ling-ling's diary (the voice over), starts with her mother Xeuhua's misadventure with a young lover (whose face we never saw) who deserted her with a child born out of wedlock during the Cultural revolution era in China.
There is more depth in the movie than initially meets the eye. There were of course depictions of how the mother and child were ostracised, but the movie does not dwell on it. This is the time before China picked up in economic development and in the rural communities, the outdoor movie show was a big entertainment (but don't expect anything even remotely close to a drive-in). This becomes the element that integrates the entire movie, as most of the key events evolve around it. This is a happy time shared by mother and daughter. It is also where the mother meets Ling-ling's future step father, actually the owner of the modest outdoor movie "theatre". It's also where the friendship between Ling-ling and Xiaobing flourishes, as well as the scene of a tragedy later.
This movie is surprisingly rich in contents. We first see how mother and child persevere, with dignity, through a hostile community. When things finally improve, to the extent of their general acceptance when the mother marries the kind man who has been treating them like family through Ling-ling's early childhood, thing take a turn. Although still a decent stepfather and a loving mother, the couple's attention understandably turns away from Ling-ling when they have their own little boy, a gentle soul. Ling-ling's resentment, however, is also understandable as the family's limited financial resources are dedicated to fulfilling her half-brother's dreams rather than her own.
Although Mao Xaiobing is a key character and is one of Ling-ling's happiest memories from her childhood, he wanders into and out of her life almost nonchalantly. This is an interesting character in itself and reminds me of my summary line for "Nobody Knows" "getting into the child's mind". When we first see him showing up in this rural town with his family, a trouble-making urchin and prankster with a perpetual idiotic smile on his face, we don't know if we should despise or merely dislike him. When we find out that beating from his ill-tempered coal-minor father is a normal daily occurrence, we start to have some pity for him. When later he becomes almost like family to Ling-ling and her mother and we find out that he can be courageous and considerate despite the rough edges developed for survival, we positively like him. But in Mao Xiaobing's own mind, he is probably neither an aggressor or a victim, because playing nasty trick on others and being beaten by his father are simply the ways of his daily existence, and he has never known any other.
33-year-old director Xiao Jiang*, a good looking and intelligent looking woman, had wanted to be a diplomat, but finally told herself that such a job would stifle her creativity and instead went to study directing in the film academy of Beijing. This movie, her debut, has won her awards in China and Morocco (Marrakech).
* "Jiang" is her family name (probably no relative of previous president Jiang Zemin). "Xiao", meaning "small", is not part of her name but a very common prefix widely used to indicate informality and familiarity "Xiao Smith" would be something like "Smith, my boy".
Jiang Xian uses the complex backstory of Ling Ling and Mao Daobing to study Mao's "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) at the village level. The film has the elements and pace of Chinese opera and so appears slow and sometimes sentimental to the foreign viewer. But the movie provides a window onto contemporary life in China, with its focus upon villagers in the city, the consuming quality of subsistence--daily struggle, family and local cruelties--and the appeal of movies as escape, fantasy, and, ultimately, as source of community. This last is the most radical element in the film, for it suggests the modern--and universal--experience of culture will replace the insular Chinese traditions. The child actors are particularly fine.
During last year's visit to the Hong Kong International Film Festival,
it gave me an opportunity to take in first hand and provide for some
exposure to Chinese films, specifically those that were made in China.
Amongst those that I've seen, I was blown away by the quality of
storytelling and craft, and had wondered how soon after would I have
the chance to watch something from China again, since our local cinemas
don't really bring them in for mass consumption. Hence, this film
festival was like a godsend, putting together some classics of the
past, together with contemporary offerings from the new generation of
directors. The Festival name might be a mouthful, but its objective is
no doubt succinct - to introduce us to the magic of Chinese cinema once
Electric Shadows opens the festival, and by and large I've heard some really good things about it. The DVD has been available for some time already, but procrastination meant not picking it up, so having it screened as the opening film was no excuse anymore to miss it. And it's no surprise that I fell in love with director Xiao Jiang's first film, which is one with such a compelling story and fine acting, I would think one would likely have a heart of stone not to like it for some reason.
The film's opening introduces us to the character of Mao Dabing (Xia Yu), a water delivery boy who spends the bulk of his wages watching movies in the cinemas. I chuckled at this obvious identification, of someone spending his free time at the movies, and being completely lost in them as a form of escapism from the mundane repetitiveness and perhaps loneliness in his day job. While we follow his point of view for the most part at the beginning, that perspective shifted to a mute girl he encounters, who for no reason pounded his head with a brick, and destroyed his company sponsored bicycle. Persuaded to help her look after her fish while she has to inevitably get detained by the authorities, Dabing thought that he had reached seventh heaven when her apartment turned out to be one huge home theatre.
From there, the pace picks up, and we're transported to some 30 years back into the Cultural Revolution, and rewinds a little bit to the earlier generation. Electric Shadows has a bit of everything, even though some might like to compare it to Cinema Paradiso, I thought that this film had merits to stand on its own two feet despite the obvious comparison. It is its own movie, and while episodic, it never felt disjointed or had portions out of place, but gelled together seamlessly to weave an epic adventure of the story of a young girl Ling Ling, born at an outdoor cinema, and had cinema to be her companion during her formative years. As always, it's the mothers, here Jiang Xuehua (Jiang Yihong) an actress wannabe, who played a huge role in her appetite for films, and for her philosophy to lead a life with their heads held high because of her single parent status, leading to Ling Ling being quite a feisty little girl.
It was a time where film screenings were communal in attendance and experience, in small towns where close knit villagers have that as common mass entertainment. Electric Shadows managed to capture the social and cultural climate of the times, and best of all, had a tremendous number of clips to snapshot various cinematic oldies and gems that you would be tempted to check out should you have the opportunity to do so, one of which is Shining Red Star which will be screened this Saturday. Against this backdrop, Ling Ling leads quite an eventful life, where the pace catapults with the introduction of Mao Xiaobing (Wang Zhengjia), a scruffy kid from out of town whose mischievousness brings trouble, but for their love of movies which brought them together to be best frien uds forever, even though he prefers the action genre where he can make-belief he's the star of the show.
Electric Shadows is such a charming film that you'd find it hard to believe it's actually a first film, balancing drama, comedy and tragedy even with great aplomb, although there were some series of coincidences in the events and characters that you'll find it easy to ignore for the whole movie to work. It's strength also came from the wonderful cast who brought their likable characters to life, and you cannot find better chemistry between the cast members even when some of them take up the same characters albeit for different age groups. You'll feel for mother Xuehua in her resignation to the bad hand Fate had dealt her, you marvel at the dedication of Pan Daren (Li Haibin) the projectionist, you laugh and cry at the antics of the children, especially those of Xiaobing and Bing Bing (Zhang Haoqi) the kid brother who seemed to possess such maturity in his innocence.
It's been a long time since I was moved so immensely moved by a single film, and I'm glad that Electric Shadows shone brightly through and cemented its place in my mental list of all time favourite movies. With amazing cinematography and locales, and a score as performed by the China Philharmonic Orchestra, this is a must watch, a truly exquisite film to sit through, well worth your time and one for repeated viewings. I'm getting the DVD!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I loved this movie! It was much better than Beijing Bicycle and most other contemporary Chinese films taking place in modern China. Xia Yu delivers an amazing performance as is expected from him. This movie is somewhat comparable to The Notebook. It definitely ranks up there next to Crouching Tiger and Hero. I cannot praise the movie enough. The movie really has a great twist. It is worth renting all the way. I especially like the portrayal of 1970's China and modern day Beijing. The film sequences from old movies are also great! Being Chinese, I found this movie somewhat accurate in depicting the 1970s. I would recommend this to movie!
ELECTRIC SHADOWS is the delightfully charming debut from the Chinese director, Xiao Jiang. Her film asserts that there is a wondrous and remarkable connection between the mystery of dreaming and film appreciation. In Chinese, 'electric shadows' is the literal translation for the word 'cinema'. The characters in this film have an intense emotional attachment for motion pictures, and their lives have been shaped and guided by the movies they love. The rather strange storyline concerns a bicycle delivery driver who crashes his bike and is assaulted by a mysterious young woman. She is apprehended, and allows him to stay in her apartment to feed her fish. Within her apartment is a shrine to the Golden Age of Chinese motion pictures. During his stay, he discovers the girl's diary, and then the film becomes a flashback about how she came under the spell of the cinema. ELECTRIC SHADOWS is a marvelous mix of drama, comedy and tragedy with several young children in leading roles who effectively portray the innocence and delight of childhood. ELECTRIC SHADOWS is an alluring and enthralling melodrama which interprets the irresistible power of film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
But ignore those last three negative reviews. I found this movie
delightful but I like poignant movies with happy endings, and great
music. Don't forget the music. It is lovely. This is no ordinary movie.
It's too bad that there is no rating for the music too since the music
by Jiping Zhao is outstanding. It would be a great movie for the whole
family to watch.
It is a heart warming story but not mushy since the story is fictional, sort of like Mulan which is based on fiction but has its twists and turns and poignant moments also.
I loved it. I watched it months ago and thought about it and actually rented it from the Public Library and watched it again. I was so involved in just the story the first time I forgot how beautiful the musical score was.
Check it out Americans. You might learn something about our Chinese neighbors. Seriously, it's good for you.
Then go watch The Taste of Tea. You'll become a fan of Asian movies too. Then go check out Wong Kar-Wai and see some more real genius.
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