Shadows Of The Empire

I find myself in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo this week and as coincidences go this is a good one.  On the way here I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about shadow puppet theatre – but with a difference. Entitled Star Wars as Shadow Play, the writer John Krich  talks about a new shadow play called Peperangan Bintang, which translates from the Malay into Star Wars. str2_cn_2710_cnbintang_A

In the article Krich outlines a three-year old project by Tintoy Chuo to find a new, younger audience for the ancient Malaysian art of Wayang Kulit:

George Lucas credits the success of his Hollywood blockbusters in part to traditional forms of mythmaking. Now, his storytelling is coming full circle. Those heroes and villains from “a galaxy, far, far away” have landed in Malaysia with the mission of reviving its traditional art of the “shadow play.”

“I’m trying to combine the traditional with the high-tech to find a unique way to preserve Malaysian culture,” says originator Tintoy Chuo. “I myself sometimes find shadow play too long and boring. But this is something cool that young people can relate to. Even my mom knows ‘Star Wars.'”

A 25-minute preview of “Peperangan Bintang” (Malay for “Star Wars”) premiered last October. Drawing on the first of the films to be released—whose full title is “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”—it features Sangkala Vedeh (Powerful General Vedeh, or Darth Vader), Perantau Langit (He Who Walks in the Sky, or Luke Skywalker) and Puteri Leia (Princess Leia), plus the familiar squeaking robots, augmented by banging gongs and screeching horns, eerie graphics, dramatic recitations and sound effects of heavy breathing and robotic squeaks. Mr. Chuo is still working on turning it into a full-length shadow play, usually 1½ hours.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea from the start,” says the retiring president of the Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club, Adi Azhar Abdul Majid. The club of 200 paying members—”from architects to kids who flip burgers,” says Mr. Adi, a former lawyer and freelance professional emcee—stages movie marathons and garage sales of memorabilia to support local charities. With the fan club’s help, Mr. Chuo was able to contact Mr. Lucas’s Lucasfilm, which said through a spokeswoman that Mr. Chuo’s “art was beautiful” and “was impressed with his passion for ‘Star Wars.’ ” Lucasfilm said it has offered to put Mr. Chuo’s photos in its fan publication, Bantha Tracks.

It was three years back that Mr. Chuo, 42 years old and a father of three, first struck on the idea of redesigning Luke Skywalker and the gang in shadow-play style. He raised funds by selling T-shirts displaying his fantastical hybrid creations. He seems perfectly suited to the project: By profession he’s a “character creator,” designing creatures for use in games, advertisements and other applications. But in the end he decided he needed help from a shadow-play “jedi.”

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“At first, I made them in plastic with lasers,” Mr. Chuo says. “Soon, I realized I needed to find a real puppet master to help me stage a performance.” A long search across rural villages ended with a Facebook inquiry from Muhammad Dain bin Othman, 62, a shadow-play master known familiarly as “Pak,” or Uncle, Dain. “That Christmas,” Mr. Chuo recounts, “I saw my first shadow play and he watched his first DVD of ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Pak Dain’s conclusion: “It’s a simple story, not difficult.”

The master soon helped Mr. Chuo fashion 10 puppets the old-fashioned way, of cowhide, the holes made by nails. Pak Dain’s only hesitation was over his reputation for authenticity. He decided it was acceptable to adapt “Star Wars” because tradition allows “outside stories” to augment main mythic plot outlines. “Nobody has complained so far,” Pak Dain explains, because musical themes specific to the Hindu characters Rama and Sita were changed.

“I told him that if some found us inauthentic, I would take the blame as the Chinese guy,” Mr. Chuo says.

Hailing from the Tumpat district of Malaysia’s northern state of Kelantan, a shadow-play hotbed, Pak Dain was taught by three learned masters and began mounting performances in the 1980s. He retired in 2008, but kept a connection, pouring his money into training musicians to keep alive this art that was once a regular feature of weddings and village celebrations. Unable to perform, he opened a Kota Bharu gallery for the puppets. It is estimated there are only 10 surviving master puppeteers around Kelantan, where the form of theater was adapted from Indian sources. Compared with the better-known Indonesia version, Malaysian wayang kulit features rounder, more transparent figures—colors shine through the silhouettes. The characters have one movable arm, as compared with two in Indonesia.

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The slow and relatively static performances have lost ground to movies, television and videogames. Today, the Malaysian shadow play is performed mainly for tourists in the Cultural Center of Kota Bharu, Kelantan’s state capital. One of the motives for basing a production on a Hollywood legend is, in Pak Dain’s words, to “change the mood” of authorities by “showing that shadow play doesn’t just belong to Rama.”

Though he’d like more funding to improve backdrop effects and perform overseas, Pak Dain says he will “continue to sacrifice a lot because we all love it and we want to promote it to the younger generation.”

This put a huge smile on my face for a number of  reasons. One, the attempt to keep, revive even, a traditional theatrical form like Wayang Kulit is admirable and innovative on Chuo’s part. Two, as contemporary theatre is using the big screen to widen its audience base, I am taken by the idea that the world of cinema is finding a place on the ‘theatrical screen’. Three, I have to admit I’m a Stars Wars fan – but of the original films, not the dross that Lucas produced later

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Tintoy Chuo and his team have been working hard to publicise their work. Firstly an interview with Chuo, Take Huat, Pak Dain and Ahmad Azrai by Gloria Kurnik about the project, which you can watch here.  Secondly, Chuo and Huat took part in the TEDx event in Kula Lumpur, and spoke about their work:

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There is also a Facebook Page which follows the development of the project, which is planned to be finished – a full length Wayang Kulit piece – by the end of the year. There is a little trailer here, which just made grin from ear to ear, especially the scene with R2-D2 and C-3PO

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1479328_634266829961483_1618726353_nThe fact that traditional techniques of puppet making and puppeteering are the centre of this effort is heartening, as is the use of traditional Malay instruments to play the soundtrack. Also, there is an alignment of characters with those in the traditional Wayang Kulit stories, which will hopefully widen the appeal. On the flip side, when the New Straits Times wrote about the venture, they did so on their ‘Tech’ pages, because of the computer generated visual effects being used.

This truly is fusion in so many ways.

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