Monday Movie: The Puppetmaster, by David Bax
On the occasion of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s breathtaking masterpiece The Assassin having just been released into American theaters, the time is as good as any to revisit 1993’s The Puppetmaster, one of Hou’s other great works and, indeed, one of the greatest films of all time. In recounting the life of famed Taiwanese puppeteer Li Tian-lu, Hou traces the history of Taiwan across the first half of the twentieth century. On the surface, this sounds awfully similar to Zhang Yimou’s beautiful epic To Live, which came out a year later and used a puppeteer of a different stripe as the through-line for a survey of mainland China’s recent past. In execution, though, Hou’s approach is a more intimate one than Zhang’s. The history lessons of The Puppetmaster can often appear incidental, embedded as they are into the more focused and intimate portrayal of a fascinating man.
While The Assassin is a film that seems to have gone through multiple layers of abstraction from the mainstream cinema whence it stems, The Puppetmaster is a far more accessible and, in many ways, conventional story. It’s not that Hou has transformed as a filmmaker over time so much as, in the case of The Puppetmaster, he’s tailored his film to his subject. Li is a populist entertainer and the interview segments Hou includes between reenactments are full of warm, funny and sometimes bawdy stories. Taking his cues from the man, Hou makes an approachable and unthreatening work that remains bracingly honest. It’s like Forrest Gump without the sappy pandering.
Some of the best sequences in The Puppetmaster are those of the puppetry itself. Hou has a fellow artists’ fascination with Li’s craft and allows his narrative to occasionally be put on hold in order to simply appreciate what Li and his cohorts are accomplishing. Hou somehow manages to give us a look at how the sausage is made while still preserving the beauty of the final effect. There is nothing even approaching condescension or quaintness in Hou’s approach to Li’s vocation. It’s similar, in fact, to the way Hou depicts martial arts in The Assassin. We are incredibly lucky to be alive at a time when an artist as gifted as Hou is willing to stand alongside us in awe as he shows us the gifts of others.