Warm portrait of Chinese shadow puppet players

December 2007 -

dvd: Chinese Shadows - Frank Kouwenhoven and Antoinet Schimmelpenninck


Still from: Chinese Shadows

"There are too many gods here; one cannot keep track of them all," sighs the elderly puppet player Hu Zhenming during a visit to an ancient temple. The loveable Hu is one of the main characters in the surprising documentary Chinese Shadows.

The puppet players from the Chinese province of Gansu who are fighting against all hope to keep their tradition alive are from the same poor farming population that is their audience.

Gansu is plagued by extreme droughts and failed harvests. Many villages still have no electricity, meaning that shadow performances, which can be done using an oil lamp, are one of the scarce types of amusement available.

The players also have performances using three-dimensional rod puppets, but these attract far fewer viewers than the shadows. "That is not surprising," they say, "they are not really all that interesting. We primarily perform these to greet the gods."

This unconcerned but respectful treatment of ancient rituals of faith is characteristic for the puppet players. After an ailing infant "crosses the pass" during a performance, thereby costing the life of a rooster, one of them comments: "If you are ill, it is better to go to the doctor."

Still from: Chinese Shadows

Endearing are the scenes at a village school, where Hu teaches the basic principles of puppet playing. The Cultural Revolution nearly wiped out all expressions of folk culture. These days the Chinese government supports including it in school curriculae. Sixty percent of elementary school children have applied for the puppet playing lessons. Some parents object, preferring their children to be educated in 'high' culture.

Daring but effective is the choice of music for Chinese Shadows. Where it really counts – during the performances – authentic, unpolished folk music is used. Scenes of the landscape and the population, however, are accompanied by a melancholic piano, including pieces written by Janacek, Sibelius and Smetana.

The future of shadow puppetry appears uncertain, but there is certainly reason for modest optimism. It is not without cause that the film closes with a shot of a boy enraptured in manipulating a shadow puppet for the first time.

Chinese Shadows can be ordered at CHIME foundation, chime@wxs.nl. Price: € 20,00