It’s a balmy December afternoon in Kowloon, just down the road from the Broadway Cinematheque, and director Cheuk Cheung is sitting on a terrace in the Eaton HK hotel. Cheuk is the founder of A Priori Image production house, and he is gearing up for another presentation of his latest feature documentary, Bamboo Theatre, his third peek inside the world of Chinese opera after My Way and My Next Step. His interest in Chinese opera in all its forms doesn’t stem from having family in the industry or being taken by grandparents at holidays, the most common ways of getting into it. He simply stumbled upon it while studying cinema.
“I remember first going to see a Chinese opera when I was at the APA [Academy of Performing Arts] and I was very moved by it,” he recalls. That particular opera was in the Kunqu style, which was developed in the city of Kunshan, near Suzhou and Shanghai. It fused the region’s traditionally refined vocals with northern traditions in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). “I couldn’t find a logical reason I was so affected – I just was,” says Cheuk. The performances’ theatricality and tradition grabbed his attention and he found himself cultivating an appreciation for the skill of the artists. “And the only way to document this art is [with] their bodies; there’s no paper record. That was the starting point for my docs.”
After graduating from his film studies in 2007, Cheuk honed his technical skills as a production assistant and assistant director on films like Rob Cohen’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. But it was the creative side of the filmmaking process that lured him. His 2009 short film Love Letter from a Classmate featured in that year’s Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival, but Cheuk’s influences, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, Austrian director Michael Haneke and Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski, all began their careers making documentaries. “Documentaries are a way to connect with society,” he says.
Cheuk was also well aware that younger generations were more of a challenge to engage with, and reaching broad audiences would be difficult without something for viewers to connect with. That’s when he embraced the spirit of Chen Kaige’s 1993 Oscar-winning Farewell My Concubine. Chinese opera was a major motif and plot point of that film, but it was the friendship between the characters played by the late Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi that drew audiences in, whether they liked opera or not. Cheuk took the same approach and built his first two films around compelling characters.
“We’re human and watching how someone makes their decisions and lives their life is always interesting to us,” he says. “I focus on characters and let the Chinese opera work in the background.” As much as Cheuk hopes to chronicle the form and perhaps win it new fans, he is not a Chinese opera evangelist. His first film, 2012’s My Way, connected with audiences because of the young Dan—men that play female roles in Cantonese opera—at the heart of the film.
Seven years in the making, Cheuk’s sensitive document of a marginalised art form followed Tam Wing-lun and Wong Hau-wai, a friend of Cheuk’s from school, making careers for themselves as opera singers as well as their friendship. Tam’s story began at just 11 years old, when he was a prodigy struggling to balance art with the demands of school he knew he could not quit. Wang’s began when his was a student at the APA with a mother who objects to his chosen vocation, one he hoped to remove the stigma from. For Cheuk, the film spoke to anyone in Hong Kong—from artists to athletes—pursuing a passion without the support of family or public institutions.
His follow-up, My Next Step (2015), unfolded in the Kunqu opera world, one of the oldest known forms of Chinese performance and recognised by UNESCO. The film tracks performer Yang Yang as the martial hero—the wusheng—he has devoted himself to playing falls out of favour until Yang is the last remaining wusheng performer of his generation. The question becomes one of throwing in the towel or reinventing a 600-year-old form for a contemporary world.
For his third film, Bamboo Theatre, Cheuk has created a Frederick Wiseman-style observational doc (Wiseman shot to fame with 1967’s Titicut Follies), turning his camera on the stage itself. “The building of the bamboo theatre, the architecture, is the core of the film,” he says. The film spotlights the roughly 40 villages around Hong Kong, among them Sai Kung, Po Toi, High Island and Peng Chau, that regularly build bamboo theatres to celebrate the birth of Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. Because the theatres are usually in coastal villages, it’s easy for urban dwellers to miss them entirely, says Cheuk. The celebrations were banned in mainland China after the Communist takeover of 1949. And while they continue in some Chinese communities in Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, it is only in Hong Kong where bamboo theatres like the ones in the film are still built.
The theatres stand only temporarily, and they are built without a single nail or staple gun. What makes them such an integral part of Hong Kong culture is the sense of community they create. In the tradition of theatre throughout history, from Seneca to Shakespeare, the theatres are open-air in order to better “hear the wind, the rain, and… connect to the gods and the universe,” says Cheuk. “It’s not just a performing art, and preserving this cultural space is crucial.” Theatres feature space for rituals to honour Tin Hau, and the backstage areas are nearly as comprehensive as any found in bricks and mortar venues. Some have old-fashioned tiered seating, but most now feature modern folding chairs.
The majority of the operas are produced by small local troupes and staged by residents’ associations. “There’s definitely a community element to them. In some of the villages, everyone’s moved to the city, so when the festivals happen every year it’s a good reason to get everyone to come back,” says Cheuk. “Some build every year, some do it every five or ten years, and former residents that have moved overseas will come back. That’s when they bring kids, husbands or wives and update the family register. It’s a way to maintain and renew family bonds.”
Whether Bamboo Theatre will connect with average Hongkongers remains to be seen; it is doing well in festivals in Seoul and Taipei, and North American and European screenings and museum presentations are on the horizon. One thing’s for sure: there couldn’t be a better time to show off some uniquely Hong Kong heritage. “In the last five years Hongkongers have again become more aware, or attuned to, their identity,” says Cheuk. “It happened in 1984, in 1997, in 2014. We’re thinking about our roots. There’s been more willingness to explore that, and in that atmosphere there’s more media to investigate cultural heritage. That’s a positive.”
Next up for Cheuk is a deep dive into male-dominated Japanese Noh theatre and a profile of mother-daughter performance duos, itself something of a continuation of the Tokyo Arts and Space residency he completed in 2018, which intersected Noh, Kunqu and Western opera. But right now Cheuk’s focus is on getting the word out about bamboo theatres.
So where would he recommend someone looking for a stage find the best experience? He pauses for a second before recommending Po Toi for its logistical complexity—it is a car-free island surrounded by choppy seas—but adds a couple of more accessible locations, too. “For a great performance, Sai Kung and Shek O,” he says. “Those two are also interesting because there’s a large non-Chinese community living there that [is] heavily involved. It’s a really unique atmosphere.”
For information on future screenings of Bamboo Theatre, refer to the film’s Facebook page.