Sometimes called In The Hands of a Puppetmaster, presumably to distinguish it from the terrible Donald Sutherland movie The Puppet Masters and Full Moon’s Puppet Master series. Another Taiwanese-occupation historical drama, the center part of a trilogy with City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women. City of Sadness seems more memorable than this one did since I had ol’ Tony Leung to latch onto. This one is more detached from the action, which is broken up over a longer timeline.
A true-ish story narrated by the film’s real-life subject, who appeared as an actor in previous Hou films. We don’t see him on-screen for the first third of the movie. His appearance brought to mind American Splendor, only with less humor and no cartoons. Wiki: “Based on the memoirs of Li Tian-lu, Taiwan’s most celebrated puppeteer, this story covers the years from Li’s birth in 1909 to the end of Japan’s fifty-year occupation of Taiwan in 1945.”
Real Mr. Li:
from V. Canby’s original Times review:
His story is revealed in a succession of short, often oblique but vivid vignettes. These begin with a dramatization of a family row about whether the baby is to bear the name of his mother’s or father’s family, a tale cut short by the real Mr. Li’s terse soundtrack interjection: “That’s how I was born.”
There are harrowing tales about his mother’s death, his unloved stepmother, his disinterested father and his rebellion as an adolescent, when he was apprenticed to a traveling puppet-theater troupe. From time to time, the audience is given long, wonderful chunks of Mr. Li, as a boy and as a young man, working his delicately fashioned hand puppets during performance.
A synopsis can’t convey the particular quality of “The Puppetmaster”; that is, the seductive way Mr. Hou takes the audience into a world of arcane rituals and rites. The director’s fondness for the meditative, stationary camera, which was favored by the Japanese film master Ozu, no longer looks borrowed but reimagined. The lack of camera movement and the long takes, in which an entire scene is shot without a cut, reflect the searching manner of an old man as he tries to make sense of the past.
The camera occasionally simply stares at a room or into a series of rooms that open one out of another before a character has entered or after a character has departed. It’s as if the mind of this singularly alert survivor were dealing with Proustian associations, memories uncovered by a kind of afternoon sunlight, or a cooking smell or the touch of someone long gone.
Young Fake Mr. Li:
I had trouble keeping up from the very start, when the old man narrates his own birth and explains why he’s got his mother’s last name. Obviously a movie that rewards a second viewing, once you’ve got a basic grasp on the plot. Neither am I sure which actors played what parts – usually I can use the IMDB cast to help figure out which characters were which, but not today.
Older Fake Mr. Li:
That Li ascribes his origins to a set of legal provisions immediately connects him to his occupied homeland—a disempowered territory now defined by the rules and regulations of a foreign party—just as his age-old profession ties him to the ancestral traditions of Taiwanese culture. Such associations run throughout Hou’s biographical tale, with Li’s rebellion against his abusive father and stepmother, his exile from puppeteering after the Japanese forbade public performances, his compulsory work for a Japanese propaganda puppet troupe (part of the government’s “Japanization movement”), and his ultimate triumphant rebirth as a celebrated artist all designed to reflect the upheaval of a country in which the indigenous population was forced to accept that, as one drunken Imperial Army soldier tells Li, “You can never escape the fact that you are a colonized islander. A third-class citizen.”
By having Li relate altered versions of things we’ve already witnessed, Hou strikingly points out how the act of remembering invariably sparks a metamorphosis of what’s come before. Yet just as importantly, such a device allows the filmmaker to express the passage of time by asking viewers to experience the film’s occurrences in both real-time and, through our own reliving of certain scenes more than once via Li’s delayed annotations, the past. This process of experiential repetition is the film’s most arresting and vital structural component, linking now with then, the real with the semi-real, in a web of era-intertwined symbiosis.
I wish our gov’t would put on propaganda puppet shows:
When he’s eight, his grandmother gets sick, but as she’s recovering his mother dies instead. His girlfriend Big Eyes is sent away. Grandfather dies and little Li is beaten by his stepmom. But he gets his dad to let him join a puppet troupe, after which he’s traded away to other troupes for years and finally founds his own (called Also Like Life – so that’s where Shooting Down Pictures got their domain name from).
Japan starts interfering, prevents all outdoor performances in Taiwan, killing puppetry dead. Li moves in with an opera group, meets a prostitute named Leitzu. “I had told her before that I was married with children. But what about us? We are travelers that meet on a path.” Back into puppetry (and back with his family), he joins a couple of Japanese propaganda puppet theater groups, gets into a scuffle with an occupying officer, but gets away with it because of his fame and regard.
At the end of the war he has a terrible evacuation from Taipei. The whole family catches malaria and his youngest son and father-in-law both die. He joins a new theater group – the final shot is of the townspeople disassembling Japanese planes, after he’s told that the money to pay him comes from selling scrap metal.
Grunes: “The title refers to both Li’s profession and Taiwanese history under the Japanese, who appropriated Taiwanese puppetry for their own propagandistic purposes and who otherwise impressed their own culture on the Taiwanese, making puppets of them.”
It’s long but not big, complex but not epic, morally committed but not given to proselytizing, and offers no grand spittle in the face of the cruelty of colonization. Instead, it gives us the story of a man who had to organize his life around circumstances he did not want and, through the juxtaposition with the source of those trials (some of which had nothing to do with politics or other alterable conditions), talks of what one has to do when the gods throw thunderbolts at inconvenient times.