This is Hou’s masterpiece – a mammoth work about tradition and family, astonishingly crafted, and wrapped in the kind of historical fervour that gives it its power.
Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
1993 | Taiwan | Drama/Biography | 142 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin, Min Nan & Japanese
M18 (passed clean) for coarse language
Cast: Li Tian-Lu, Lim Giong, Bai Ming Hwa
Plot: In the first half of the 20th century, young Li Tian-Lu joins a travelling puppet theatre and subsequently makes a career as one of Taiwan’s leading puppeteers.
Awards: Won Jury Prize (Cannes); Won 3 Golden Horse Awards – Best Cinematography, Best Makeup & Costume Design, Best Sound Effects. Nom. for 3 Golden Horse Awards – Best Feature Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score
Source: Chinese Taipei Film Archive
Subject Matter: Heavy
Narrative Style: Complex/Unconventional
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at the Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective – first published 9 May 2016)
Together with A City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster represented a one-two triumph of such astonishing cinema that I doubt director Hou Hsiao-Hsien would ever top these two films again.
The second work of his ‘historical’ trilogy, The Puppetmaster predates A City of Sadness, which focused on the tumultuous post-war period of 1945–1949. Here we go back another half-century when Taiwan was a colony of Japan.
Hou’s attention to period detail, in both art direction and costume design, is at its most earthly here, a far cry from the elegant and intricate style of his later film, Flowers of Shanghai (1998), set in the late 19th century.
But it is his use of sound (e.g. popping of firecrackers; villagers hammering away on a grounded war plane) and music (ambient guitar instrumentals accompanying stunning landscape shots) that makes The Puppetmaster most unforgettable.
Centering on an old man, played by the charismatic Li Tien-Lu, who recounts fascinating episodes of his real life directly to us—hence breaking the fourth wall in a kind of pseudo-documentary style, the film sees a child version of him growing up with his volatile family, and later as an adult (played by Lim Giong, one of Hou’s favourite composers) being involved in a puppetry troupe performing stories and myths to a captivated audience.
Hou’s mastery of staging the art form—and in some sequences, of Chinese stage opera—keeps us riveted, held in still long takes. The diegetic traditional Chinese music, vaguely familiar from my childhood when my grandparents used to take me to such performances, also gives The Puppetmaster its authenticity.
With the film using puppetry as a form of entertainment, and later on to navigate political waters (i.e. Japanese propaganda during WWII), there’s an added layer of performance art manifesting itself as a communicator of nationalism, and a transference—if only temporarily—of soft power away from one puppetmaster to, well, another.
Hou’s work ought to have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Instead, the honour was unceremoniously split between Chen Kaige’s great, but imperfect historical epic Farewell, My Concubine (1993), and Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993).
In my opinion, The Puppetmaster is not just the finest achievement of Hou’s unparalleled body of work, but also a sheer masterpiece of world cinema. I seriously implore The Criterion Collection to secure the rights—however difficult or expensive it may be—and restore it in 4K. More people need to see this, and on a pristine transfer.