Of Shadows (China/Canada, 2016)

Shot in Huanxian County, Yi Cui’s feature debut captures the art of shadow play, also known as shadow puppetry, and its place in this northeast part of an ever globalising and modernising China. The local government has been rather active in preserving and promoting the tradition of shadow play and, consequently, as the film relates, there are over fifty shadow play troupes and around four hundred performers in the county. As such, this pre-cinema-rooted medium and art is a veritable culture industry in Huanxian today, even in the face of other, more popular and technologically advanced media. As proof, the film begins with a series of increasingly wider shots that gradually reveal the scale of the preparations, venue, and number of people involved in the “Third Shadow Theatre and Folklore Festival of Huan Xian County.” Then, another series of shots from the perspective of a moving vehicle brings the film from the city to the mountains, with the final destination being a nighttime scene of a shadow play performance in progress. On the surface, this opening urban-to-rural journey clearly demonstrates how much, indeed, shadow play marks the cultural life of this county wherever one may find oneself. At the same time, in what follows in the film, Yi in fact contrasts rural-urban perspectives of cultural consumption through shadow play, including interviews with members of a rural-based itinerant shadow play troupe. Though without voiceover narration, captions, or any other overt directorial address (save for occasional conversation or laughter from Yi behind the camera), the way and order in which attitudes are presented in the film ultimately draws out a bitter irony between the politico-cultural use and lavish display of shadow play in the name of tradition and history on the one hand and the increasingly difficult life led by village-based shadow play troupes, hustling as they do on a daily basis for their love of the art for little to no pay, on the other hand.

The opening sequences establish this ironic contrast like a mathematical proof, while the rest of the film builds support for this contrast by charting a series of conversations, rehearsals, and performances of a rural-based shadow play troupe and occasionally cutting to pre-Festival rehearsals in the big city. In this regard, the informal conversations and rehearsals amongst the troupe members more than the individual sit-down interviews are revealing. In one early scene, members of the troupe eat together while speaking of keeping up with competition, not only local but also global competition, in the sense of sustaining the relevance of their art in the face of multimedia conglomerates as well as the ongoing rural-urban migration that continues to empty villages of inhabitants, their main setting and audience. In a later sequence in a village, which features one of the few instances of camera movement to be found in the film, the competition is made perfectly clear: while a shadow play performance takes place, the camera slowly pans to the left to reveal, just opposite the shadow play stage, a movie screening that has taken away the shadow play audience. In another sequence, song rehearsals are directly followed by troupe members seated and speaking of how the Party is rich but does not spend well, on top of which they are not paid enough for what they do for official Party events, all of which contradict song lyrics of “the good life” that they have been rehearsing.

Among the sit-down interviews, the most memorable one is with the rural-based shadow play performer who states, “You are truly performing in the villages,” compared to official Party events, in which one is only given a handful of minutes or a snippet of a scene to perform before being scuttled offstage just as quickly as one is pushed onstage. In fact, one cannot help but think of his words about preferring to skip out on such official events and instead eat a simple meal in a simple place outside of the purview of officialdom when the film returns to the Festival near film’s end.

But the film’s most critical and quite triumphant moment in the degree of humour is of the footage of two men from the troupe whose vehicle has gotten stuck in the mud on a dirt path in the mountains. As they wait for help or ponder what to do in the depopulated quiet that surrounds them, they go over the lyrics of a song previously heard in the film during rehearsals and bitterly laugh over the stinging irony that arises, all the more glaring against the shadow of the Festival’s extravagance and polished orderliness. In the process, they unwittingly re-write a nationalistic song into a piercing satirical question-and-answer duet:

Lyrics                                                              Performers’ comments

“Travel is convenient”                                    “Why aren’t we moving?”

“The lamb chops,”  “the millet wine,”                      

“better than big restaurants”                           “We don’t even have hot water to drink”

“Graduates and postgraduates are

joining the village leadership”            

“The reforms make life wonderful”                “This is good”

“Mountains smile, rivers smile, smiles           “See? So we sing”

linger everywhere”                             

“Good day, good time, life is sweeter”           “Why is ours getting more bitter?”   

Of Shadows is available as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.