Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Puppetmaster (Xi meng ren sheng)

















THE PUPPETMASTER (Xi meng ren sheng)          A                   
Taiwan  (142 mi)  1993  d:  Hou Hsiao-hsien

Hou Hsiao-hsien:
Taiwan has inherited a legacy of influences from Japanese culture….  During the Korean War, we drew closer to America and imbibed its culture and influence.  I feel our generation has a responsibility to conserve the beauty of our own traditions, and to disseminate them using the tools of our age and from our own perspective.  In this way, the best and most worthwhile of our traditions will be passed on to the next generation.

The second installment of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's historical trilogy, which also includes A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) (1989) and Good Men, Good Women (Hao nan hao nu) (1995), THE PUPPETMASTER is based on the life of famed Chinese puppet master Li Tien-Lu. Spanning the years 1909 to 1945 and covering major historical events in China's occupation by the Japanese, the film is epic in scope, yet highly personal in focus. Influenced by Chinese painting and the aesthetic concept of "liu-pai" (the idea that what is visible within the frame can open the mind to the world that extends beyond its parameters), the PUPPETMASTER is visually stunning.  Hou's use of deep-focus composition, long fixed shots, and lack of close-ups create an onscreen tableau evocative of a puppet stage.  It is on this stage that Chinese history unfolds, interwoven with the simple narrative of Li's life, which is performed by various actors and is related anecdotally by Li himself, who appears onscreen as a humorous and engaging raconteur.  For Hou fans, Li is a familiar presence, having acted in several of the director's previous films.  Through this quietly complex film, Hou offers a slow meditation on the relationship between man, his art, and the world around him.

China ceded Taiwan to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and it remained in Japanese hands until the end of World War II.  A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) is the first film of this trilogy of historical films on Taiwan and covers the period from the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, including the massacre of Taiwanese by government troops in 1947, and the failure of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist troops in their attempt to regain the Mainland, retreating to the island of Taiwan in 1949.  THE PUPPETMASTER covered the earlier period 1909 to 1945, the time from the Japanese occupation to Japan's surrender, and the third, Good Men, Good Women (Hao nan hao nu), covers the period of 1949 to the present.

Perhaps most unique of the three, as there’s really nothing else in cinema history to compare, the film is based on the memoirs of celebrated Taiwanese puppeteer Li Tien-lu, who narrates directly to the camera in this biographical film, which at the same time reveals a country’s history of 51 years under Japanese occupation.  Now in his eighties, the film follows the story of his life, as he joins a traveling puppet theatre as a teenager in the first half of the century and subsequently makes a career as one of Taiwan's leading puppeteers.  During World War II, the Japanese rulers of Taiwan shut down the puppet troupes and use the traditional Chinese puppet theatre exclusively for their own war propaganda, which Hou uses to considerable humorous effect.  Only after the war do street theatres start playing again, and the population’s appetite is ravenous, as they consider it a style and culture that is uniquely their own.  Despite the dramatization of life under foreign rule, the film is notable for its non-judgmental restraint, for filming entire scenes in long takes, for its motionless camera and lack of close ups, but also for its painterly visuals and deeply humanistic style.  The film celebrates, in such a theatrical way, the beauty of a vanishing culture, a time filled with harshness and death, but without a hint of artifice or nostalgia.  In fact, what is especially unique and inspiring about this film is its warmth and humor, much of it based on the charm of myth and folk tales learned from the times Li spent with people in the mountains, yet always what stands out is how surprisingly human this man is.  To conceive a film around Li’s all-too-real autobiographical accounts is astonishing.  Li is like everybody’s grandfather, the one we wished we had, as he is a remarkably skilled storyteller, cigarette butt in hand, down to its last dregs, taking a swig afterwards.  His stature as a performing artist was so revered that he was on the same social status as a Japanese officer, higher than all the other Japanese troops who considered other Taiwanese “third class citizens...colonized islanders.” This film pays homage and a particular reverence to his elder statesman stature, as in this film, he is used like an African griot, continuing the tradition of oral history passed down through the generations, as it has been done before, probably for centuries.  

In an interview Hou has stated that in this film he is “exploring the values of traditional culture which we have lost…. We have distanced ourselves from nature and man has become like a puppet—he has lost his power to be his own master. THE PUPPETMASTER…represents the lament which I feel for the loss of our culture.”  Li narrates the story in the tradition of professional Chinese storytelling, a popular form of entertainment in which a story is told by a single performer in daily installments over an extended period of time.  The film intersperses Li's narration with indigenous music and with examples of performances and theatre, including Peking Opera, musical skits, puppetry and propaganda plays written for the Japanese, usually preceded by the crackling noise of firecrackers.  Hou utilizes long static shots to convey the experience of distance, as if the viewer is watching a theatrical performance from the audience.  As the film so accentuates the life of a single character, with the history of the country paralleling that of the unforgettable Li Tien-lu, he comes to personify the identity of that nation, as he is someone who has survived the brutal past with his wits and his dignity intact.

2 comments:

  1. "I feel our generation has a responsibility to conserve the beauty of our own traditions, and to disseminate them using the tools of our age and from our own perspective."

    For once I agree with Hou. He should give up the foreign art of cinema and take up something indigenous like Puppetry. But then, he uses his actors as puppets than characters, so I guess it's more or less the same thing.

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  2. >>For once I agree with Hou. He should give up the foreign art of cinema and take up something indigenous like Puppetry. But then, he uses his actors as puppets than characters, so I guess it's more or less the same thing.

    As I mentioned, he can't get funding in Taiwan, so he's on the international market, largely financed by the French.

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