Ann Hu’s “Shadow Magic” is the first co-production between Taiwan and mainland China, and so it has a certain historical importance whatever its quality. Happily, while it’s rather a slight piece, it has modest virtues which give it considerable charm. The script plays to the same combination of nostalgia and love of the movies that made “Cinema Paradiso” (1989) such a worldwide success, but it’s not likely to be embraced so enthusiastically. That’s because, quite honestly, the characters haven’t been as cleverly fashioned or the sentiment so cannily applied as was the case in Giuseppe Tornatore’s picture. It’s also burdened with a culture-clash subtext that’s played too unsubtly for comfort.

The picture is basically about the very beginnings of the motion picture art in early twentieth-century China. The protagonist is Liu Jinglun (Xia Yu), a likable still photographer in a shop run by Master Ren (Liu Peiqi), the henpecked husband of a rich wife (Lu Liping) on whose dowry the business is founded. Liu has a fondness for modern western inventions, and he quickly becomes fascinated with the “moving” pictures introduced into Peking by dissolute British expatriate Raymond Wallace (Jared Harris). After some initial difficulties, the two become partners in Wallace’s enterprise: Liu helps make the Brit’s “theatre” a success while Wallace teaches the Chinese man the basics of moviemaking–the duo even begins filming scenes in Peking, which become a sensation. Trouble follows, however, largely as a result of the bias against western influence that prevailed in China at the time. The popularity of the shows endangers the young man’s courtship of the girl he pines after, Ling (Xing Yufei)–she’s the daughter of a renowned master of Chinese opera, Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), who fears that the novelty of movies will diminish appreciation for Chinese culture. Meanwhile Liu’s position at work is threatened by his increasing devotion to his new “job,” and his elderly father (Wang Jinhming), as well as his boss, are trying to persuade him to wed a wealthy widow (Fang Qingzhuo). Things come to a head when Wallace and Liu are invited to give a private showing of their films at the royal palace, with disastrous results. There’s a happy ending, though, since Liu, with the help of his foreign friend, becomes one of China’s first native filmmakers.

So “Shadow Magic” tries to be many things at once–a romance, a paean to cross-cultural friendship, a domestic comedy, a character study of a sweet-natured young man, a commentary on Chinese xenophobia, and a nostalgic tribute to the pioneers of the cinema. It’s hardly surprising that it can’t juggle all these elements with complete aplomb over two hours, or do any of them full justice. As a result it becomes a film of small, sporadic pleasures that’s enjoyable enough but slightly fractured and fragmented.

Fortunately, things are held together fairly well by Yu, whose quiet, methodical performance is refreshingly unaffected. The same, unhappily, can’t be said of Harris, who comes on much too strong as Wallace. The Englishman is supposed to be a tortured soul, but Harris plays him so broadly that it’s akin to watching a stage performance from the first row in the house. The remainder of the cast is expert; special mention should be made of Yusheng, whose acting is as impressive as his vocalizing; Peiqi, who makes Master Ren a subtle figure; Jingming, who has a flair for comedy and pathos; and Qi, who gives a cartoon character some glimmers of depth. There’s also fine cinematography from Nancy Schreiber, which captures a few scenes of extraordinary beauty; and Hu generally keeps things moving without rushing them.

“Shadow Magic” isn’t the equal of the finest pictures we’ve seen from the mainland or Taiwan over the past decade; it’s far too sentimental and obvious in its effects. As a valentine to motion pictures and a celebration of friendships crossing national and ethnic lines, however, it’s nice without becoming too sanctimonious or mushy.