With the serene backdrop of China’s Loess Plateau, “Of Shadows” follows a troupe of shadow play performers, who honed their skills in the remote area. Within a culture that is in constant flux, the lively troupe search for a way to keep the centuries old form of entertainment alive. “Of Shadows” follows the troupe as they tour, and offers interviews, giving further insight into the performers and their views and hopes for the art form they cherish.
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“Of Shadows” is closer to a portrait of a troupe fighting to keep their art alive and relevant within a shifting culture, rather than an informative documentary. This is conveyed in the approach to favor atmosphere over education, giving a unique and engaging portrayal of a folk art form specific to a region in China. However, this choice does create some instant limitations for the viewer. Notably, with the understandable restriction of audience awareness of ‘shadow play’, the lack of contextual information creates a degree of frustration. Overall, the passion for the subject matter still comes across and “Of Shadows” would work ideally in the format of being able to follow it up with questions with the creator, or just someone knowledgeable in the subject matter, giving it the impression of the ideal starting point towards discussion of Shadow Play theater.
With a focus on capturing the atmosphere surrounding the day to day of the touring performers, “Of Shadows” manages to brilliantly infuse greater social commentary through visual storytelling. Notably, at one festival where the performers halt their production because the group is focused on a movie playing nearby. After uttering a term of defeat of having their performance overlooked, the film screen begins to collapse. Even though capturing this moment is by happenstance, it reflects the passion of the performers as the screen they use is ultimately tied to their livelihood, and the neglect shown in the presentation of the film strengthens the idea of the centuries old art form being kept alive through an unwavering passion for live performance. Scenes such as this have a constant presence throughout the production, adding a lot of narrative depth.
The documentary becomes notable by functioning as a visually stunning exploration of an art that is best complemented by a detailed exploration of its form. With the production opening with a scene from one of the plays, it is apparent that the focus to best represent ‘shadow play’ was at the forefront of director Yi Cui’s considerations. Taking place on a stage few will witness in real life, the production does offer a clear vision of the shadowed marionettes and the people bringing them to life, and allows the viewer to get as close to the experience as possible. In adding visual intrigue, China’s Loess plateau acts as a strong focal point that compliments the film’s casual approach. Within a less inspiring background, scenes that stay focused on scenery with no dialogue would be cumbersome and a deterrent. To the benefit of the audience, director Yi Cui captures how the area and the troupes sense of identity are woven together, allowing for the area to become just as explored as its subjects.
“Of Shadows” is an engrossing exploration of folk art kept alive through determined and passionate performers. However in romanticizing the art form, the educational aspects become rather lost. The format is bound not to hold appeal to many, and fans of documentaries will have some experience with those that just hover over the subject matter and contain little form. It is an approach that is bound to have some people disliking the documentary, regardless of its exceptional approach in visual storytelling. With the film also giving the impression that a Q&A following the production would add a lot of depth in understanding, I felt a bit unfortunate to see the production outside of a setting geared towards deeper exploration. Regardless, I really enjoyed my time with “Of Shadows” and am grateful to have experienced the beauty of shadow theater.