A fairly conventional heartwarmer, "Electric Shadows" is a good example of accessible Mainland cinema that deserves distribution beyond fests. "Cinema Paradiso"-like story, stretching from the Cultural Revolution to the present day, has enough cultural hooks to attract upscale auds in any country.

A fairly conventional heartwarmer, lifted by likable performances, good-looking production values and (for movie buffs) a story centered on an outdoor cinema in rural China, “Electric Shadows” is a good example of accessible Mainland cinema that deserves distribution beyond fests. “Cinema Paradiso”-like story, stretching from the Cultural Revolution to the present day, has enough cultural hooks to attract upscale auds in any country, and debuting writer-director Xiao Jiang shows she has the makings of a quality mainstream filmmaker.

Thirty-two-year-old Xiao Jiang (“Little River”) — nom de plume of Jia Yan — graduated from Beijing Film Academy in the mid-’90s and worked extensively in TV, including writing and directing three TV movies. With its copious extracts from and references to classic movies and stars, “Electric Shadows” is a love letter to an age when cinema was still the main source of mass entertainment in China, and movie theaters (especially in rural areas) a social center for the whole community.

Refreshingly, pic doesn’t adopt a patronizing tone toward either the period or the movies, nor become embroiled in the politics. Through a teasing story mixing flashbacks with the present, helmer communicates her real affection for the art and the era, through characters of roughly her own age.

Mao Dabing (local star Xia Yu), an easygoing film buff, works delivering water bottles in Beijing. One day after he accidentally crashes his bike in an alley, he’s suddenly brained with a brick by a disturbed young woman, Ling-ling (Qi Zhongyang), who also trashes his bike.

Arrested by the police, Ling-ling remains silent, but she gives Dabing the key to her apartment, asking him to feed the fish. Her place turns out to be a shrine to the movies, and especially to one star, legendary ’30s singer-actress Zhou Xuan (best known to Western auds for the 1937 classic, “Street Angel”). As Dabing reads her private diary, pic flashbacks to Ningxia province in the early ’70s, and the story of Ling-ling’s mom, Jiang Xuehua (Jiang Yihong, quietly dignified).

It’s the middle of the Cultural Revolution, and the young, attractive Xuehua works for a radio station in an unnamed country town. Ambitious to become a singer and film star like Zhou — an impossible dream at the time — she’s abandoned by her lover and gives birth to Ling-ling during an outdoor screening of an Albanian movie (“Victory Over Death”). She’s subsequently branded a counter-revolutionary.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the young Ling-ling (Guan Xiaotong) grows up surrounded by movies, as her mom is befriended by kindly Pan (Li Haibin), the local theater owner-cum-projectionist. The young girl also pals up with a scruffy young ruffian, Xiaobing (scene-stealing Wang Zhengjia), who, to Ling-ling’s distress, is finally sent away to live with his grandfather in Anhui province.

The various scenes of the tykes fooling around, and the evolution of the de facto family of four, are handled with a real charm that avoids sentimentality. Story gets more complicated during flashbacks to the ’80s, when Pan and the mother eventually marry, have a son, and the teenage Ling-ling (Zhang Yijing), now an aspiring performer, is forced to take second place. Reading the diaries, Dabing has now realized who Ling-ling really is.

Tech package of the Hong Kong co-production is smooth throughout, with warm lensing and scoring. However, in what must be a first for a foreign-lingo movie, the English subtitler receives a jolting, five-second solo card prior to the end crawl — the biggest and longest credit of all, including the director’s. Chinese title means “A Childhood Dreaming of Movies.”

Electric Shadows

China - Hong Kong

Production

A Beijing Dadi Century, Happy Pictures Culture Communication Co. production. (International sales: Fortissimo Film Sales, Amsterdam and Hong Kong.) Produced by John Sham. Executive producers, Huang Jianxin, Derek Yee. Directed by Xiao Jiang. Screenplay, Xiao Jiang, Cheng Qingsong.

Crew

Camera (color), Yang Lun, Chen Hong; editor, Lei Qin; music, Zhao Lin; art director, Fu Delin; costumes, Yu Baonian; assistant director, Li Kai; sound, Li Zhe. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 12, 2004. (Also in Vancouver, Pusan film festivals.) Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Jiang Yihong, Xia Yu, Li Haibin, Guan Xiaotong, Zhang Yijing, Qi Zhongyang, Wang Zhengjia, Zhang Haoqi, Xia Yuqing, Jiang Shan, Niu Zhenhua, Liu Yang, Zhao Jinboa. (Mandarin dialogue)
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