The Puppetmaster (Hsimeng jensheng)

The Puppetmaster

Long live the Emperor.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien must be pretty well-regarded as a director, as he has three films on the list. After seeing a second of his tonight, the biography The Puppetmaster, I’m not sure he deserves all those slots. His films, the both of them I’ve seen, evoke the same mood, and they are made in much the same way, so to have three different entries for what amounts to the same movie-watching experience seems a little too redundant for my tastes. Then again, this is the same list that has so many films by the Dardenne brothers, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Nevertheless, here we have The Puppetmaster, another exceedingly long entry at 2 1/2 hours, and one that, aside from trying to encompass an entire life, doesn’t seem to justify the running time.

The Puppetmaster is a complete telling of the life of Li Tian-lu, who is apparently a famous Taiwanese puppetmaster. It follows him from childhood, all the way into prominence, where the Japanese government (who was occupying Taiwan during this time period) start to try and force him to make propaganda pieces with his puppet theater. The film is narrated by Li himself, in his old age, so the film comes across as a fireside autobiography straight from the mouth of the man himself. It was quite helpful, even if it was a bit of a cop-out on the creative side, and much of the actual storytelling consists of single scenes from his life, bridged by lengthy exposition that covers the empty areas. The production value, and use of the art direction, made me think of the film as a poor man’s The Last Emperor; very well done, but not to the lavish extremes of the latter film. The cinematography was also very purposeful, using a lot of darkness to cloak scenes to a very moody degree, while having the early puppet plays that would shape his life mostly in daylight. According to the Book, there’s a lot of subtext in pretty much every scene, like the one near the beginning where the police show up and force the family to cut off their pigtails, which was apparently a metaphor for how the Japanese occupation of Taiwan was so commanding and intolerant, but for me, had I not known that from reading the Book’s entry, it would’ve been just another superfluous scene to me.

I thought about this film in the context of Hou’s other film that I’ve seen, The Time to Live and the Time to Die, and I found the two films very similar. It was easy to tell they were done by the same director; very slow, very methodical, and what seems to be a deliberately long running time. And, just like the other, I had a bit of a trying time getting through this one. While it was nice to look at, and told a semi-interesting and arguably important story, it just wasn’t entertaining enough to hold my attention the whole way through, and I found my mind wandering often while I was watching it. All told, this doesn’t really bode well for Hou’s last film on the list that I have to watch; I expect it to be more of the same, and even with my first helping from the director, I felt like I had tasted enough.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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