Xiao Jiang's wonderful directorial debut made Judge Joel Pearce remember what it's like to be in love with cinema.
"If my life were a movie, I'd be the only one watching it…"—Ling Ling's diary
Electric Shadows has been favorably compared to Cinema Paradiso by many reviewers. Those kinds of comparisons always frighten me. Such proclamations are rarely justified, only serving to set up those us who love classic films for disappoint. But I am pleased to announce that Electric Shadows deserves the comparison. Like so many of the greatest films, it is steeped in a rich cinematic tradition, and Xiao Jiang (in a stunning directorial debut) has crafted a masterpiece around her own love for film.
Facts of the Case
One day, Dabing (Yu Xia, Dragon Squad) is on delivery when his bike crashes into a pile of bricks. A nearby girl rushes up, smacks him with a brick, and proceeds to destroy his bicycle.
Baffled by her actions, Dabing confronts the girl at the police station, only to learn that she is mute. Before she is taken away, she asks him to feed her fish in her absence. He hesitatingly agrees, only to find a treasure trove of movie paraphernalia in her apartment. He also finds her diary, which chronicles the story of her life. He learns that her name is Ling Ling (Zhongyang Qi), and her life of silent solitude grew out of the childhood events that shaped her.
It's difficult to discuss Electric Shadows without falling back on a series of critical clichés. After all, it is a hidden gem; it is heartwarming; it will, for many viewers, rekindle a love for movies. The greatest films draw magic from the mundane. They don't show us mystical other worlds, but rather show us that, seen through the proper lens, our own world is magical. It's not often anymore that we find films with this kind of magic, but Electric Shadows is one of them. I feel unequipped to analyze Electric Shadows in the usual way, but I will try to explain what makes it stand out so clearly.
At first, I thought this was a film set against the political backdrop of Communist China. Soon, though, I realized that the political situation of the characters meant absolutely nothing. The sequences with Ling Ling as a girl growing up would resonate with almost any child in the world. What sets her apart is her love for the golden age of Chinese cinema, which is the true backdrop of Electric Shadows. Although this era of film is unfamiliar to me, the sequences chosen and shown do a lot to explore Ling Ling's reality.
This love for classic film is also what sets this film apart from any other I've seen in the past few years. This film doesn't only chronicle the changes in Ling Ling's life, but also the changes in the Chinese film industry over this period. In truth, I know little about classic Chinese cinema, but there seems to be little difference between this and the classics of the western world. Early in the film, groups of people gather around to watch the movies together, projected onto a sheet outdoors. Some bring their own stools, some stand, but it's immediately clear that these films are a shared experience for their viewers. This theater dies when most people get televisions in their homes. Just like in North America, while the television tries to bring the magic of the movies into the home, it ultimately destroys the theater experience.
And so, in some ways, Electric Shadows is an elegy for cinema as it once was. At one point, audiences didn't get to choose between 10 films at the multiplex. Films wouldn't show for a few weeks, trying to snaffle up ticket money before the release of the next big thing. Audiences that wanted to watch films had to get together and hit the theater. Under that system, the movies were magical. There was a real excitement as the children asked what movie was playing that night. The opportunity to see a movie was something to get excited about and look forward to. When television arrived, it brought choice and convenience, but some of the magic and the excitement began to fade. Fifty years later, it's only the occasional gem that reminds us of what the movies used to be. Now, we have an industry that uses the science of marketing to fill theater seats, not the magic of moviemaking.
I must also mention the performances. Especially those of the children. Just as movie magic has dwindled over time, it also fades as we grow older. Somehow, a good child performance brings that all rushing back. Few directors have the skill to draw performances like this out of children, but now Xiao Jiang can be added to that short list. Through the children's eyes, we see excitement, disappointment, tragedy, and hope. While the cultural references in Electric Shadows sometimes whipped over my head, the experiences of the characters were always accessible.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If only the DVD transfer did justice to the rare quality of this film. The cinematography is simple and beautiful, though it's sometimes hard to tell. Electric Shadows has been presented in a letterboxed widescreen presentation, with the English subtitles burned into the bottom black frame. While this is all right for people with standard televisions, it leaves no good way for those with widescreen televisions to watch the movie. The colors are washed out, and there is a dire lack of detail throughout the picture. Edge enhancement rears its ugly head quite often as well. I've seen discs from First Run Features before, and I can only assume that this is the best source print that they had access to. Still, I can't imagine a film only two years old being this poorly preserved. It looks like a television print from ten years ago.
The sound is better, featuring a straightforward stereo track with clear voices, and a nice blend between music and ambient noise. It's flat, but does what's required of it. There are a few special features, including a text introduction by the director. In it, she celebrates not the oft-referenced cinematic masterpieces, but instead the joyous films that captured her imagination as a child. Production notes give some information about the myriad Chinese films that are referenced in Electric Shadows. It's helpful for those of us who didn't grow up in open-air Chinese theaters. Beyond that, we get the usual photo and trailer galleries.
Somehow, Electric Shadows has distilled everything that makes movies great into 95 minutes of cinematic gold. It's not as fancy or showy as most recent films, but it comes to us with a sincerity that we have been sorely lacking in recent years. If you have ever loved movies, or want to know what it would feel like to truly fall in love with movies, Electric Shadows is a wonderful discovery that you should not miss. Despite the disappointing image quality on the disc, I warmly recommend this film for rental or purchase. It's been a very long time since I've been swept up by a movie like this.
Xiao Jiang is not only innocent, but has immediately become one of the young directors to watch out for internationally. First Run Features gets a warning about video quality, but is pardoned for releasing such a wonderful film in North America.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Director's Introduction
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