Cheuk Cheung’s otherwise observational documentary Bamboo Theatre often interrupts the action with a series of title cards beginning “this is a space”, a space for ritual, for culture, for the traditional and for its evolution both manmade and somehow spiritual. Bamboo Theatre (戲棚) is in fact Cheuk’s third documentary on the subject of Chinese opera having apparently developed an interest through a chance encounter that left him surprisingly moved, but the focus this time is as much on the building as it is on the art emphasising the ironic endurance of these transient structures forever dismantled and rebuilt in a constant process of change and renewal.
As the closing titles reveal, the number of bamboo theatres operating across Hong Kong has dropped by 30% though the traditional practice continues to endure with communities across the islands conducting ritual to honour the birth of Tin Hau, goddess of the sea. Built entirely from bamboo without the use of a single nail, the structures are a marvel of engineering yet intended to stand for less than two months, performances taking place for only three to seven days before the entire theatre is dismantled and transported to its next location to be resurrected anew. Cheuk elegises the disappearing art form through long sequences of painstaking construction scored with classical music as if to lament the dying nature of the craft while bearing testament to its survival as the company crafts its own space with its own hands not only a stage and makeshift covering but a warren of backstage corridors where costumes are steamed and pressed while actors rehearse or put on their makeup. A scenic boat is even is whipped up mid-performance seconds before being tracked on stage.
Meanwhile, the theatre creates its own kind of spectacle outside its doors a mini festival taking place in the open air with stalls selling nicknacks and street food. The audience appears diverse, a mixture of small children accompanied by parents or grandparents along with elderly spectators attending alone, the kids well behaved and engaged with this very traditional art form. As another of the title cards reminds us, this is a space for entertaining both people and the gods, ritual and enjoyment presented with equal importance which explains perhaps how this incredibly laborious practice has managed to endure in an age which largely values convenience.
Then again as one performer complains in one of the few scenes featuring dialogue, why don’t they put up a mobile toilet for the performers along with the rest of the structure, their personal convenience it seems valued comparatively little. A mess of hanging cloths, the backstage areas appear more spacious than one might expect, but are also subject to their own arcane rules a sign reminding women not to sit on crates for the gods though it seems unlikely anyone is doing very much sitting at all given the general business of backstage of life. Even once the audience has gone home, an old man commandeers the darkened stage to practice his art singing to an empty auditorium in an otherwise silent night.
Having begun the film with a theatre’s construction Cheuk closes with its dismantling, foil sheeting from the roof clashing to the floor with apocalyptic intent yet also suggesting that this is how something survives, taken down in one place to be rebuilt in another the same but different, transient and eternal. In this way, xiqu opera survives its ritualised nature taking on an almost mystical dimension in its constant acts of appearance and disappearance though perhaps it’s ironic to think of something so obviously built by human hands as “intangible” culture. Even so, the enduring power of the bamboo theatre captured with an ethereal distance through Cheuk’s sensitive lensing is perhaps a sign of hope for the future in the face of persistent anxiety that such iconic local traditions are always at the risk of erasure.
Bamboo Theatre screens in Chicago on April 2 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.