A shadow play is a performance made possible by light. Through illuminated paper screens, puppets reenact epic tales of battles, doomed love affairs, and legendary feats. Behind the scenes, a cast of master puppeteers and musicians are busily creating the illusion of life. Yi Cui’s exquisite film Of Shadows offers a multiplicity of perspectives on this ancient art form. First there is the play itself, then there are the artists at work, and finally there is the audience, comprised of ancient grannies, little kids and teenagers whose rapt faces, caught in the warm light, complete the story.
For decades, shadow theatre troupes have brought villages and communities together across China. But in the face of other newer forms of entertainment, shadow theatre is struggling to survive. Cui captures the labour of love required by this traditional art form as she follows one of China’s surviving shadow play troupes. The puppeteers describe their passion for shadow theatre, as well as the difficulties of generating enough money to keep the show going. But their struggle is somewhat lost during an ironic celebration by the city of Huan Xian, as they prepare to celebrate the cultural importance of shadow theatre, even as it is under dire threat. From observing the actors and puppets, to the breathtaking shots of the Loess Plateau, Of Shadows explores the existence of one of China’s modern jongleur equivalents. Cui’s film not only offers an intimate perspective into a rich cultural tradition, but also sheds light on the artists that are quietly fighting to maintain its heritage and presence. After the screen is taken down, the instruments packed up, and the fragile puppets stored away, we’re left to ponder the eventual fate of shadow theatre. -VY