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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>
Jeeze, whoever decided, out of the blue, to declare Hou Hsiao-hsien a master filmmaker was really pushing it. Those who chose to believe that opinion are even more guilty. I don't want to declare that he's untalented. I did truly like Dust in the Wind and City of Sadness, no matter how flawed I found them to be. The Puppetmaster is an enormous step in the wrong direction, more like the atrocious A Time to Live, a Time to Die than the two I actually tolerated. Hou's just not especially talented. People praise him to high heaven, claiming that his style is incredibly unique. Let me diagram his directorial technique: 1. Static long shots with few movements and few close ups. 2. His shots are often framed by doorways and the like. 3. Many landscape shots. 4. Characters in a scene often remain out of sight for a long time at the beginning of a scene, which confounds the audience when a visible character is talking to or interacting with them. 5. Loose narrative structure. 6. The subject of his films is most often Taiwanese history, often radiating from the tumultuous period of the WWII era. That's it. There is not one thing on this list that hasn't been done before and much better, whether Asian or Western (well, maybe the thing about Taiwanese history, but plenty of great filmmakers have illuminated their own country's history). The combination of several of these factors (and no more) is a recipe for insomnia medication. His cinema is about as limiting as cinema can get, reminscent of pre-Griffith cinema, where filmmakers never thought to move their camera or give a close-up of anything. The effects are all de-dramatizing, which is extraordinarily pointless. As Pauline Kael once said, if films aren't supposed to be entertaining, then what are they supposed to be? Torture? I know what Hou's answer would be.
Sorry. I went a bit too far with that last paragraph. The Puppetmaster does have its great moments, mostly coming in two forms: theatrical performances (puppet plays and opera) and one-on-one interviews with the Puppetmaster himself, Li Tien-lu, where he tells long and rambling stories - long and rambling, but very interesting and entertaining - about his life. The rest of the film is made up of accounts of the events he's talking about acted out on screen. Some are good, some are bad, but none of them are inherently interesting. Since these episodes are only tenuously connected to the past and the future, there is absolutely no weight to these scenes. This is particularly pathetic, because the real Li Tien-lu was the best part of both Dust in the Wind and City of Sadness. I would have been infinitely more contented to just watch the interviews without the sketches, because Li is a beautiful human being (not to mention a marvelous actor) whose face, body movements, and tone of voice communicate infinitely more than the motionless actors and actresses who are insultingly acting out his life experiences.
And people who would like to deify this director and, consequently, want to crucify me, check out my other tastes: if you want to jump to the conclusion that I'm a brainless American who needs his movies fast, chew on a few of my favorite films that 99% of the population would find as slow as molasses: 2001, anything by Andrei Tarkovsky, anything by Antonioni, most things by Bergman, My Dinner with Andre, Dreyer's sound films (Ordet, Day of Wrath, and Gertrud), Rhapsody in August, The Decalogue, and The Dreamlife of Angels, for starters. How about those who would criticize me for not liking loose narratives? Godard is one of my very favorite filmmakers. And seeing that The Puppetmaster was supposedly improvised, at least in the editing room, I happen to love Pierrot le fou, Godard's film where he, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Anna Karina grabbed a camera and went out on the road, improvising an entire film (as rumor has it). And if this is all Hou could come up with if he came into this film not having an idea what he was going to make, Fellini did the same thing with 8 1/2, and that is one of the ten best films ever made, in my opinion. Now how come I don't love this master's films? The answer is simple, methinks: he's no master.
I have very stubbornly stuck with a different Hou film every Friday for a month now, and he has revealed little or nothing to me about the human condition or the nature of filmmaking. Seeing that the showings are free, I'm not going to skip them. However, I can breathe a huge sigh of relief that there is a two week break in this particular series. 5/10 for The Puppetmaster.
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