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THE PUPPETMASTER

Taiwan / China, 1993 (MIFF 1994)

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Possessed of a unique melancholic but never indulgent or nostalgic vision, and with nine successes over the last decade, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien is unquestionably an international great. His 1991 historical epic City Of Sadness was an enormous box office smash in Taiwan, which set him the challenge of how to follow it up. Now, after a long wait, he has trumped it with The Puppetmaster. Stylistically, it is a departure from City Of Sadness. Where that film was an epic with a massive cast, The Puppetmaster focuses on one man.

The subject of Hou's new film is Li Tien-Lu, the puppetmaster himself, who has appeared as an elderly patriarch in his last three. Here, however, Hou simultaneously recreates his off-screen life during the period of Japanese colonisation which ended in 1945. As a puppeteer, we should not be surprised to find Li is a great story teller. Hou gives him space to weave his oratory magic, and gently slides in and out of the dramatic flashbacks.

As always in Hou's films, absence, ellipsis, off-screen space, and emptiness structure everything and lend special poignancy. We hear Li talk about the difficulties of colonial occupation and wartime bombings, but never see them represented directly. Rather, Hou has chosen to push his hallmark reticence and subtlety to new limits. He almost never moves his camera, and films in exceedingly long takes, depending on his assured framing and command of movement in and out of frame to lure the audience into a trance-like state of suspended fascination. For some, the absence of high drama will be too much, but others will recognise Hou's skill and daring, relax, and allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the result.

See also...

cafE Lumiere

Japan, 2004
In [Cafe Lumiere] Hou Hsiao-hsien has fashioned a superb homage to Japan's master filmmaker Ozu Yasujiro, incorporating some reverent references to his 1953 [Tokyo Story]. ... [Cafe Lumiere] is a del… More »

THREE TIMES

Taiwan, 2005
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is certainly one of the greatest living filmmakers - and this new masterpiece acts as undeniable proof. It tells three love stories set in different eras; The vigne… More »

TAIPEI STORY (PG)

Taiwan, 1985
“[A] quietly stunning drama which sees the various problems facing a rapidly modernised city reflected in the lives of a dozen or so subtly observed characters.” - Time OutStarring MIFF regular, … More »

THE TIME TO LIVE AND THE TIME TO DIE

Taiwan, 1985
"Hou Xiaoxian's overwhelmingly moving film is at least 70% autobiographical: these are remembered scenes from his own mischievous childhood and near-delinquent adolescence, and the fact that he speak… More »

DAUGHTER OF THE NILE

Taiwan, 1987
In the last few years Hou Hsiao-hsien's films, (A Summer at Grandpa's '84, A Time to Live and a Time to Die '85 and Dust in the Wind '87) have reflected the considerable critical attention coming to,… More »

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