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In the first half of this century, young Li Tienlu joines a travelling puppet theatre and subsequently makes a career as one of Taiwan's leading puppeteers. During World War II the Japanese rulers of Taiwan use the traditional Chinese puppet theatre for their war propaganda. Only after the war street theatres start playing again. Written by
Otto Oberhauser <Oberhauser@cc.univie.ac.at>
Quietly, rapturously beautiful, but terribly slow.
As a film detailing a period of history through the experiences of a family, THE PUPPETMASTER is very similar to HEIMAT. By using an acting troupe as the narrative and thematic focus of this history, it resembles THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS and FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE. Stylistically though, it couldn't be further apart. Unlike the character drama of the first, the elegant, complicated camerawork of the second or the intense emotionalism of the last, THE PUPPETMASTER is a rigidly formal work, breathtaking to look at, baffling to understand, eventually oppressive to watch.
The main narrative concerns the life story of the title character, up until the end of World War II - his story parallels the occupation of his country, Taiwan, by Japan. Interspersed between highly stylised and composed dramatisations of his life are interviews with the man himself as an old man.
Although Hao's other films share a similar aesthetic (including the marvellous A CITY OF SADNESS), it is the puppetmaster's profession that shape the look of the film. He puts on elaborate puppet shows; and in the same way his little theatre looks like a cinema screen, Hao's film is less a fluid narrative than a series of tableaux vivants. I think there are only two camera movements in the entire film. Each scene is elaborately composed
decor overwhelms the characters, with masses of pillars, frames and
characters dwarfing any individuality. There are hardly any close-ups, and such is the visual clutter, and the sombre lighting it is often shot through, that it's often hard to make out which character is which. The direction is highly distanced and artificial, letting these characters, like rats in a trap, blindly blunder, unable to find an exit.
Any perceived objectivity in this style is deliberately illusory, and it is clear that the protagonist is not the only puppetmaster. Hao's strings are rarely unfelt, and behind the domestic traumas and bildungsroman narrative is a bitter denunciation of the effects of colonialism, and rigid hierarchical societies. Much of the entrapment of environment is linked to the traditional repressions of Taiwanese family life, with its absurd rituals of family nomenclature, masculine honour, and arranged marriages, which allow free rein to domestic brutality and the corruption of decency.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the Taiwanese become such willing quislings, deference and anonymity being a familiar part of everyday life. The puupetmaster is deeply implicated in this, being a prominent, and officially valued member of cultural propagandist groups. Much of the local and symbolic detail was shamefully alien to me, so I obviously lost much, and maybe Li's plays - generous, enthralling excerpts of which appear at crucial points of the film - have a hidden subversion lost to the ignorant viewer.
What isn't lost is a remarkable visual sensibility which often speaks for characters who can't. The historical saga is compelling, and the puppetmaster's life is often moving. The recourse to storytelling and an almost scientific faith in superstition and magic gives the film a feel of magic realism. It's just that by the second half of the film, you're throwing things at your TV, just to get the blasted screen to move.
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