Puppeteers of America National Festival
review by Stephen Kaplin
Through Cui’s lens, we are able to glimpse a hauntingly beautiful example of ancient Chinese cultural practice before it vanishes into the shadows.
Originally published in The Puppetry Journal (Winter 2020 Vol. 71 No. 1)
Yi Cui’s remarkable documentary film ‘Of Shadows” is an intimate portrait of a traditional Chinese shadow troupe trying to survive in a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. Inserting herself in the lives of the puppeteers of Xu Mingtang Shadow Troupe, Cui trails the small company as it travels around the stark Loess Hills of Hubai province, performing in mountain villages and towns, as well as to a large city cultural festival. In the process, she captures the daily rhythms of the artists’ lives and their struggles to maintain the traditional shadow theater, of which they are among the few remaining practitioners.
The film’s first scenes contrast a performance by the Xu troupe of the legendary origins of shadow theater, which trace back to the court of Han dynasty Emperor Wudi (or Wu-Ti) some 2,000 years ago, with preparations for an enormous Cultural Heritage Festival in Hubei’s provincial capital, Huanxian. The dichotomy between the traditional culture, which the shadow troupe practices as it tours about the vast rural landscape to play for aging and rapidly decreasing audiences, and the production of a garish, oversized spectacle choreographed by party officials for consumption by urban throngs recurs throughout the film.
In talks with Master Xu, Cui captures the immense split between the rural and urban Chinese cultural landscapes in stark relief. “You get an order to entertain some officials… It has to be short, 5-10 minutes. Then they give you a little cash and tell you to f–k off. It’s not a real performance. It’s about coping with some official business.” In contrast, he says, “You are truly performing in the villages when the old folks shout, ‘Another episode! Another episode!”
In one scene, the troupe is playing in a tiny temple up on the side of a steep mountain. In the midst of its performance, an outdoor film starts showing close by and the audience rushes off to watch the vintage Korean War propaganda movie. The puppeteers chuckle when a gust of wind blows down the movie screen. In another episode, we see Xu and some of his traditional colleagues rehearsing the choreography for a ridiculous Party chant: “New farms! New roads! Eating well! Sleeping well! Ah great! The scientific outlook is at work.” The Party official promises them that if they do well, they may get onto a national tour. Later, with Cui, Xu complains about how local troupes are forced to perform abroad in order to make money. They have to alter their traditional scripts to suit urban audiences, but these changes make them unsuitable for their rural fans.
The final scenes of the movie show the garish Cultural Festival, featuring flocks of young dancers and enormous effigies of traditional shadow figures mounted on parade floats arranged in front of a gigantic slogan-festooned stage. (Anyone who attended the opening ceremony of UNIMA- International Festival in Chengdu will recognize the aesthetic.) The shadow artists perform their Party chant energetically for a small, lukewarm crowd of spectators, and then they depart. On their way back home, while navigating the treacherous switchbacks of a mountain road, their decrepit three-wheeled truck breaks down. The film ends with the small troupe on the side of the road, framed by a majestic landscape, joking and laughing at the absurdity of their plight.
Yi Cui’s film lovingly depicts the efforts of one small Chinese shadow company to maintain its art form, and it effectively frames the personal and social damage that immense and drastic cultural shifts exact upon both artists and their audiences. In this way, “Of Shadows” highlights the complex difficulties facing traditional artists across the globe. Through Cui’s lens, we are able to glimpse a hauntingly beautiful example of ancient Chinese cultural practice before it vanishes into the shadows.
Stephen Kaplin is a graduate of the UConn Puppetry Arts program and NYU’s Department of Performance Studies. He is a co-founding member of Great Small Works, and Chinese Theatre Works. He currently serves on the Board of UNIMA-USA.