Wednesday, February 22, 2006

ELECTRIC SHADOWS: Insights Into Reel-Lives

(drama in Mandarin)
2004 Time: 98 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2
Guan Xiaotong and Wang Jhengjia
MOVIES provide escapism for the masses and this is especially true of Communist China in the Sixties and early Seventies. The villagers did not have the comfort of air-conditioned cinemas like we had, and for some time, they had to make do with open-air screening of ‘patriotic films’.

Electric Shadows, written and directed by first-timer Ms Xiao Jiang, is about how the cinema affects the lives of some villagers near Ningxia, circa 1971. The movie, released in 2004, has been compared with Cinema Paradiso not just because of its theme but also because it is just as bittersweet and sappy.

The story opens in Beijing where our protagonist, Mao Dabing (Xia Yu), delivers bottled water by day and spends most of his nights at the cinema. Mao’s life takes a drastic turn when he crashes his bicycle into a pile of bricks and find himself beaten up by a girl (Qi Zhongyang). He ends up in hospital and is told by the police that his assailant, a deaf-mute, is being evaluated for a mental disorder.

Later, when he meets her, she scribbles a note asking him to take care of her fish in her apartment. At the unit, Mao not only feeds the fish but also his curiosity about the girl’s background. Her home is a veritable shrine to old Chinese movies with posters of film stars, a 16mm projector and rolls of films. More importantly, Mao discovers a notebook in which she has outlined her life history in story-board format.T his takes us, in lengthy flashbacks, to the height of the Cultural Revolution when her mother, an aspiring actress named Jiang Xeuhua (Jiang Yihong) causes a scandal in the village by getting herself pregnant.

Xeuhua and her daughter Ling Ling (Guan Xiaotong) are understandably ostracised by her comrades, except for the kind movie projectionist, Uncle Pan (Li Haibin), who is an admirer of Xeuhua. At school, Ling Ling befriends a mischievous brat (Wang Zhengjia) who later moves in to stay with at her home. This is the best time of Ling Ling’s life as she and her new friend imagine themselves as movie idols and reenact their roles.

Of course, real life is very different from ‘reel life’ and Ling Ling, who believes that her father is a movie idol, soon gets trapped in between. The twist in the plot is a bit over-contrived but we should be able to overlook this flaw and appreciate the broader picture about how ‘flickering shadows’ can have a hold on one’s life.

The cast of relative unknowns, especially young Wang Zhengjia, play their roles well. However, we cannot help wondering how and where Xeuhua gets such a fashionable wardrobe in an era of persecution and poverty. Like Cinema Paradiso, this one is a must for avid cinema fans.


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