The Puppetmaster

For such a prodigious filmmaker, there are many of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films which remain widely unavailable in English. His more recent work, from CAFÉ LUMIÈRE (2003) to THE ASSASSIN (2015), has found distribution and an afterlife on DVD and streaming services — but a large portion of his career, which includes formative work and films of unspeakable greatness, remains hidden away. Luckily, Edinburgh’s Scene Taiwan Film Festival programmed THE PUPPETMASTER (1993) during its June run, and the film emerges as possibly the apotheosis of Hou’s art.

The film’s subject, the life of the puppeteer Li Tien-lu (played by more than one actor as he ages between the narrative’s intervals, and who appears on screen as himself), is introduced with the tale of how he ended up taking his grandfather’s name, Li, rather than his father’s, Ko. It follows the young man through his terrible adolescence, a bitter relationship with his father and step-mother, and leading eventually into his apprenticeship in a puppeteering troupe. Although it’s deeply personal, the story also crucially relates the way in which Taiwanese people lived under the Japanese occupation, which lasted in Taiwan until the end of the second world war. (A CITY OF SADNESS [1989], the first instalment in a trilogy of which THE PUPPETMASTER makes up the middle entry, begins exactly in time with the moment this film leaves off: it opens with the voice of Emperor Hirohito announcing the Japanese surrender.)

What both films share is an ability to make the expansiveness of history legible in small strokes: intimate moments assume the stature of testimonies, inextricably mixed as they are with the specificities of colonised life. Li’s life as a performer is fraught with danger in these times. An early trip to the Peking opera adumbrates: the opera goes on in the background, in the foreground, the heads of the Japanese police force. The first few puppet shows go by without such interference: Hou films them in a take, watching the movements, alive to the colours and the music and the way it comes together in a flurry. Unlike during times of conflict, and the atmosphere of ‘Japanization’ in Taiwan, performances are outlawed, and Li performs propaganda plays both to survive and continue practising his craft. The puppeteer becomes himself a puppet.

Hou is often referred to, presumably in a pejorative sense, as a director who makes ‘elliptical’ films, narratives with interstices, interruptions. But Hou’s narratives, his scenes, his shots, his frames, all seem to present a version of an aesthetic technique, mostly associated with scroll painting, known as liu-pai, the idea at its centre is that what remains out of the frame is as profoundly important as what’s within. This can be seen in an early moment, in which Li’s Grandfather is informed that Big Eyes, a young girl in his charge, is moving away with her own mother due to Li’s parents’ cruelty. His Grandfather is clearly heartbroken; and yet while the scene looks like many other Hou scenes, none of them feel like this one. Hou’s signature shot: a long-take, a static camera, positioned at a respectful distance, at a slight remove, the frame given another set of parameters by a door. From this view, Grandfather Li and Big Eyes look at each other, both tearful, as he begs her not to forget his face. These two characters have never been shown together; but this encounter, obviated of context, trusts a viewer to imagine the strength of feeling which must inspire such a farewell. The scene is tremendously affecting, and it’s because of what’s left out.

This would make the film seem melancholic, and it is, but it also contains surfeits of good humour and good grace (Li’s theatrical troupe is called Also Like Life, and it stands as something like a summative sentence for Hou’s films.). Li provides the narration: a wise voice with a lovely cadence, beginning his stretches with a stately, “To speak of…”. “To speak of living,” he announces, with no small amount of sagacity, “the hardest things are separation and death.” He bears witness to plenty of both, and yet the documentary sections, in which Li speaks to the camera, often sitting in locations which have appeared in the film already, are occasionally hilarious. When he’s talking directly, he’s incredibly charming, and he fills his stories to the brim with details. Telling the protracted tale of how he became a prostitute’s lover, he spends as much time emphasising her brand of cigarette as he does the nature of their first meeting. But it’s when he describes the later life of his Grandmother that the humour is unavoidable. He describes a litany of deaths in succession, but the rhythm of how he tells it demonstrates a beautiful comedic timing.

There’s a composition Hou replicates on a number of occasions in THE PUPPETMASTER, and it speaks to his conception of history. In long shot, Hou will frame a crowd of people as offset by the larger features of the landscape: the mountain range and the inhabitants of a small village grouped together. The past may seem impersonal and incomprehensible, but there’s such clarity to be gained by knowing. How much greater is Li’s sense of himself, the circumstance and importance of his life, by knowing this story? It’s incalculable. There’s also the matter of these films themselves as histories: Taiwan was ruled by the nationalist Kuomintang party until 1987, Hou makes A CITY OF SADNESS two years later. These films are attempts to see into a history piled high with contradictions and complexity: as a distant observer, Hou reaches into the past for the personal lucidity that accompanies knowledge.