Friday, May 06, 2016

DOXA ’16: Of Shadows

You can definitely say Chinese Shadow Play is a traditional art form. After all, we are all shadow puppets if you believe Plato. The nomadic shadow theater troupes usually do not get so philosophic about it. There are too busy schlepping and performing. Yi Cui observes one such ensemble as it tours the Loess Plateau and contemplates its place amid China’s changing cultural landscape in Of Shadows (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

There is indeed a backlit screen, but the shadow players project far more color than you might expect. We can see the tremendous detail of their puppets, for an effect not unlike Lotte Reiniger’s Prince Achmed. Of course, it is the music that really makes a good puppet play. For the right offer, the troupe can simply perform a musical number. However, they are always careful to tailor their performance to their audience. Hence, we watch them sing out the virtues of current economic development policies for a grand government sponsored pageant.

As one veteran shadow player bluntly puts, the big cultural showcases just want something fast. They do not care if it makes sense. In contrast, their provincial, mainly elderly patrons expect a full show and maybe a few bonus vignettes. Yet, he prefers those gigs, because they respect the spirit and tradition of shadow play.

Indeed, many Chinese cultural traditions have taken it in the shins over the last five or six decades. Clearly, shadow play is one that is just hanging on. For that reason, it is arguably regrettable Yi Cui did not incorporate more historical context and oral history. Instead, she tacks a largely observational course. Sometimes she captures some poetically telling moments, but there is also far too much aimless slack in the picture. Still, it is nice to see the practice documented, in the manner it was popularly performed. Recommended for admirers of J.P. Sniadecki’s Chinese ethnographic documentaries, Of Shadows screens tomorrow (5/7) and Thursday (5/12), during this year’s DOXA.