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.