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Reviewed by:
  • Of Shadows dir. by Yi Cui
  • Claudia Orenstein
OF SHADOWS. Director Yi Cui. Icarus Films. 79 minutes/Color. Mandarin/English subtitles. Release: 2019. Copyright: 2016.

Yi Cui's documentary film, Of Shadows, sets the daily struggles of a troupe of rural Chinese shadow puppeteers from Huan Xian county against the glorified vision of rural folk arts promoted in government rhetoric and ceremonies. The movie shifts back and forth between intimate scenes of the puppeteers' activities—performing in remote mountain settings, eating and talking amongst themselves, preparing for performances—and the rehearsals for and final elaborate festivities of the "Third Shadow Theatre and Folklore Festival of Huan Xian County," organized by government officials.

The director thoughtfully focuses on the mundane but necessary tasks that make up the lives of puppeteers. Packed into an old truck, they travel up dirt mountain roads to deeply isolated communities. We see them arriving early at open-air performance sights to set up their shadow screen and backstage area. We watch performances and performers from behind the screen, where puppets hang limply from ropes overhead, ready to be brought into the action at a moment's notice. The puppeteers and musicians joke silently amongst themselves all while keeping the show moving forward with fight scenes and singing.

At some of the venues, young children and elderly villagers gather close to the screen in the night air, captivated by the projections of beautifully carved figures, the lively music, and the old, familiar tales. [End Page 581]

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Figure 1.

The rehearsal of the Huan Xian Shadow Theatre and Folklore Festival. (Photo: Courtesy of Yi Cui)

At other sites, only a handful of spectators show up. In snippets of conversation we hear the puppeteers express their concerns about the rising price of gas, dwindling audiences, and competing troupes, even as we witness the deep community bonds they cement between themselves and with their spectators. Committed to their art, they spend their off-hours discussing ways of improving their shows, determined to draw in new audiences.

Yi Cui tells the company's story through these scenes, without additional narration or commentary. The film includes some interviews, but most are cut short before they even begin—on one occasion because of loud noises outside, on another when the subject walks off camera to ask the director some questions. While this device is interesting, and it deliberately pushes our focus back onto everyday events and the puppeteers being themselves, rather than "performing" for the camera, some of the set-ups are provocative enough to leave one wanting more. This is especially true of one that promises a female puppeteer's views on her experience as a lone woman in this predominantly male art, which, regrettably, we never get to hear. An extended interview finally arrives towards the end of the film, with a male puppeteer who delivers a long, passionate diatribe against fancy, government sponsored events, where, he says, puppeteers are brought to the city to entertain officials and foreigners who have no appreciation for the art, to do shows that are just 5 or 10 minutes long, followed by big banquets. He would, he declares, "rather sit by the temple having a simple meal at the village fair." When he performs in [End Page 582]

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Figure 2.

Shadow play artist Xu Mingtang performing at a temple fair. (Photo: Courtesy of Yi Cui)

the villages, he says, after he finishes a full play, the older people cry out for more.

The government sponsored "Third Shadow Theatre and Folklore Festival of Huan Xian County" exalts the local puppetry tradition as "humble," "modest," and from the "soil." But the festival celebrating this "humble" form—the "Shining Brand of Huan Xian" art—is anything but. Taking place in a huge stadium, it includes no

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Figure 3.

Performance of a shadow play in a small village. (Photo: Courtesy of Yi Cui)

[End Page 583]

actual shadow puppets, surely too small to fill the enormous space. Instead, the extravaganza features large figures, cut in the shapes of the emblematic puppets wheeled around the stadium...


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pp. 581-584
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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