Movie Review: Bamboo Theatre (戲棚)

Sitting at the edge of Asia on the South China Sea, Hong Kong has a rich fishing heritage that dates back long before the British arrived here in 1841. Places like Lei Yue Mun, Sai Kung, Yaumatei, Tsing Yi, Wanchai, Aberdeen, Repulse Bay, Stanley and many more all have temples dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of the sea. Every year, from mid-April to mid-May (depending on the year), the city celebrates the Tin Hau Festival in remembrance of this holy deity. There are parades, colourful dragon and lion dances, and fireworks in every corner of the city while locals stream to the over 60 temples – many of them tiny – to offers prayers and burn incense. In front of many of these temples, bamboo theatres are erected and the villages invite Cantonese opera troupes to perform ritualistic pieces in order to express their gratitude to the Chinese gods they worship. Local filmmaker Cheuk Cheung/卓翔 spent two years filming these unique temporary structures, giving audiences backstage access to see how they’re built and dismantled, and how the performers, stage managers, wardrobe people and more make use of these cultural spaces. Along the way, audiences also get a glimpse at the various ritual practices that take place there.

Cheuk has created a fascinating look into part of our city’s intangible cultural heritage. To most Westerners’ ears, Cantonese opera sounds like a bunch of stray cats in heat but after seeing BAMBOO THEATRE, they are certain to come away with new-found respect for the art form. Sadly, like many other traditions, both bamboo theatres and Cantonese opera are struggling to survive in this age of video games and messaging apps. Certainly, looking at the audiences who attend these performances, there’s a distinct lack of people between the ages of 8 and 58 and, at the end of the film, Cheuk offers up some sobering statistics on the art form’s state of health. But no matter how old you are, you can’t help but marvel at the engineering and agility that goes into putting up one of these theatres, and even more so because they only stay up for about a week before they’re taken down for another year.

This is Cheuk’s third documentary about Cantonese opera so it will be interesting to see if he will continue on with this topic. For a Hong Kong filmmaker, he has a refreshingly strong point of view. This film has a clear beginning, middle and end, and he doesn’t waste a frame in its 75-minute running time.

BAMBOO THEATRE is currently playing intermittently here in Hong Kong until the end of the year so that it can qualify for next year’s Asian Film Awards. If you don’t get a chance to see it now, it will come back to the cinema in a few months’ time. Certainly, check it out. It’s a solid film about a fascinating part of Hong Kong life.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, December 27th, 8:30 am HK time!

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