If you were thinking that you'd like to see a sweet, small, Cantonese film about movie-lovers in Maoist China, and that Electric Shadows would fit the bill, I'm sorry to be the one to disillusion you, but Electric Shadows is not in Cantonese.
So unless you prefer your movie romances in Mandarin with English subtitles, you might just want to stay home. Actually, there are a few other reasons to give Electric Shadows a miss, but for me, the real kicker is the refusal of the major film studios of China to give us a high-quality product in a language spoken by more than 60 million people. Freaking Beifanghua hegemonists!
My linguistico-political idiosyncrasies aside, Electric Shadows starts out with a tank full of charm. Mao Dabing (Xia Yu) is a delivery man in Beijing. Each day, he loads his proletarian bicycle with heavy jugs of consciousness-raising water and brings them to the bourgeois lackeys that have sprung up like running dog weeds in the rapidly modernizing city. But every weekend, he uses the equivalent of three days of his worker's paycheck to spend a few hours in the cinema, where he can relax while resolutely struggling against bourgeois individualism.
Then, one day, he crashes his glorious revolutionary bicycle into a pile of rubble. A beautiful young worker and citizen (Qi Zhongyang) runs up to him, but, seeing his need, she fails to give according to her ability. Instead, she hits him on the head with an imperialist brick, knocking him into false consciousness. Or maybe just unconsciousness.
When Dabing wakes up, he finds that the police have the woman in custody. Sneaking into her holding cell, he confronts her, but her only response is to write him a note begging him to look after her goldfish. Intrigued, he takes the key to her apartment and finds that it's set up as a shrine to cinema, complete with a projector and loads of classic films.
Surrounded by his cinematic fetishes, Dabing thinks himself in worker's paradise until he starts to read the woman's diary. It turns out that she is Ling Ling, his long-lost childhood friend. It's at this point that Electric Shadows takes a bad turn.
The next hour or so of the film is told in flashback as Dabing reads the diary. Unfortunately, director Xiao Jiang chose to use voiceover narration to indicate that the diary is telling the story, and this only serves to distance the effect of what is an otherwise beautiful and touching tale. Further, since the initial hook of the story is in the present, it doesn't make sense to depart from it for more than an hour. It's as though the film's five-year plan was suddenly undermined by Trotskyites.
The story of Dabing and Ling Ling's childhood, though, is interesting in the way it presents a strange period in China's history. It's becoming more thematically common for Chinese cinema to tackle the oddity of the cultural revolution period, and it's such an uncanny era in modern history that it's somewhat hard for a mere big-nosed Westerner like myself to relate to it.
Ling Ling's mother, it seems, had always wanted to be a movie star, but with the advent of the cultural revolution, her ambitions became suspect. The closest she could come is to work as an announcer on the loudspeaker-based radio station that played in the small mining town where she lived. But when she became pregnant, and then refused to denounce the father to the village revolutionary council, she was forced into a shameful exile, taking in laundry to make ends meet.
As her daughter grew, the two of them took solace in the outdoor movie theater, a common feature of rural Chinese towns. Watching only government-approved films, they dreamed together of the life of a movie star.
The plot at this point acquires a number of neat twists and turns. Ling Ling meets Dabing (then known as Xiaobing, "Little Soldier," as opposed to Dabing, "Big Soldier"), and they form a strange secret society of cinema love, sublimating their childhood desire for each other into an imaginary world of magic lenses and movie-star friends.
This backstory finally comes around to explaining their encounter in the streets of Beijing, but the blunting effect of the flashback has undone a lot of the movie's fun by that point. Still, it picks right back up when it finally returns to the present, and the opening and closing sections of the film have a sad and effective charm.
With its largely subtle and naturalistic script, and the fine acting of most of the performers, Electric Shadows could have been a much better film. It's still a decent romance, and it never falls into the trap of becoming undeservedly sappy, but the excessively long flashback is clearly an error. Still, this is director Xiao Jiang's first film, and one can assume that it bodes well for her work in the future, assuming she doesn't get snapped up by some Hollywood studio in need of a director for Hulk 2: The Re-Hulkening.