Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox Lorber DVD
Critical consensus places Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1993 film, The Puppetmaster, among the filmmaker’s more accessible recent works. It takes its structure from the life and memoirs of Li Tien-lu, an elderly puppeteer who has starred in a number of Hou’s films (starting with Dust in the Wind in 1987), who narrates the events of his life as they are dramatized on screen. The events of Li’s biography, which span the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in the early part of the 20th century, are concurrently rendered in words and drama with rigorous chronology. This forms a linear narrative quite unlike the structures of his other films on Taiwanese history, City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women.
Although these events are ordered sequentially, the film resists the appearance of a cohesive whole. The Puppetmaster is constructed as an episodic series of loosely connected anecdotes: Li’s childhood in an abusive household; his apprenticeship with a theatre troupe; his affair with a prostitute; and his propaganda work for the Japanese army during the Second World War. Each of these episodes is composed of a single long-take, with Li’s narration introducing, accompanying, or summarizing the action, which is then usually punctuated by an extended puppet or stage performance.
This anecdotal quality, coupled with the digressions of the narrator and the theatrical set pieces, results in a tension between the film’s varied elements that keeps The Puppetmaster from resembling a conventional or authoritative biography. This tension is heightened by Hou’s variable approach to the stories: they are either directly dramatized in the film, or else they are simply recounted by Li in voiceover. This creates a subtle disparity between what the audience is to accept as fact and what may or may not be fabrication.
As a puppeteer and a man of the theatre, Li is a storyteller with a strong tendency toward hyperbole. The events that he recounts range from the fortuitous and extraordinary to the improbable, and nearly all of Li’s narrated stories cast him in a dubiously flattering light (saving Japanese soldiers from an enraged mob of starving Taiwanese, for example). And Li’s stories frequently reveal an adherence to fate and superstition: he cures his lover’s cold sores with frog innards; his grandmother seems to die as a result of his minor mistreatment.
Conversely, Hou’s dramatizations of these stories are filmed in a sedate, naturalistic manner. His characteristic use of extended takes and of everyday settings, such as kitchens and bedrooms, highlight the banal aspects of Li’s life that remain hidden within his compelling anecdotes. But in spite of this naturalism, the film nonetheless foregrounds these dramatizations as dramatizations, as other types of performances, like Li’s storytelling or puppet theatre. This feeling is enhanced by Li’s occasional appearance on camera, sitting on the film’s movie-sets and theatrical backdrops, languidly smoking a cigarette and spinning the tale that will be (or has just been) enacted there. The viewer becomes aware of the mechanics of Hou’s film — the film’s theatricality, its existence in the realm of fiction, is made manifest. The figures of the puppetmaster’s personal history become like his puppets, performing a repeated, stylized version of the past on a small stage.