Review: The Puppetmaster (1993)
Continuing our journey through the films of Hou, we come to uncharted waters with his 1993 film, The Puppetmaster (1993). This is a film that recounts the events in Taiwan leading up to the beginning of World War II and Japanese occupation. It tells this story through the eyes of Taiwan’s preeminent puppeteer, Li Tienlu. It is an interesting mix of the historical biographical elements of the man’s life, and the political and cultural climate of the time. We are only afforded a small window in to the events of the era and view the events from the perspective of one family of puppeteers. This is the only window we need to get a full picture, and we are given a rare opportunity to feel the emotional impact of these historical events instead of a clinical analysis.
Hou distances us slightly from the material by framing most shots at a medium range, and often the characters are surrounded by cultural artifacts from early 20th century Taiwan. This is not the story of solely one man and has ascension through the ranks of Taiwanese puppetry, this is the story of an entire generation of people that were forced to adapt unwillingly to cultural changes forced upon them by war and the outside influences of a superior military power. Despite this degree of separation caused by impersonal framing, we are able to feel these cultural changes and see the unfairness of the situation. We are already at a bit of an emotional disadvantage as western audience members. These events are not part of my personal history, nor that of my lineage. One might think that this would produce an alienating effect, but the emotional distance we are given allows us to take in the entirety of the situation.
We have a protagonist to follow and his ascension to adulthood and future greatness as a puppeteer is certainly an interesting story, but there is a slight degree of alienation that never lets us get too close to any one character. This allows us to be emotionally impacted by events on the sideline, such as the heartbreaking reluctance of the grandfather to cut off his ponytail as he is forced to betray a lifetime of belief, or the devastation that the family must have felt and being forced to cut their ties with “Big Eyes”. There is a strong undercurrent of unassuming power in this technique and it seems to be rooted in the traditions and techniques of Chinese puppetry. The entire landscape is the stage, but everything is framed within the confines of oppressing and engulfing rooms filled with the artifacts of a bygone era. It is how these puppets carry out their understated yet profoundly beautiful movements within these oppressing frames that define this film and Hou’s work in general. The environment may be stifling and the government influences may be impossible to swallow, but one can still carry on with a sense of quiet dignity, soft and graceful movements, and a sense of history and tradition.