The Puppetmaster (1993)

Genres - Leisure Arts, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Biography  |   Run Time - 143 min.  |   Countries - China , Taiwan   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Tom Vick

Like A City of Sadness, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppet Master examines Taiwanese history through the prism of individual experience, but if A City of Sadness is considered difficult because it demands of the viewer a familiarity with particular historical events, The Puppet Master makes its demands by blending narrative and documentary, compressing cinematic time through ellipses, eschewing transitional devices, and filling its deep-focus compositions with layers of detail and meaning. These techniques crop up in different forms in Hou's subsequent films, and while they ask much of the viewer, they ultimately reward close attention in ways that few films can. Hou considers Li Tien-lu (whom he also used as an actor in A City of Sadness and Dust in the Wind) a national treasure and a living embodiment of Chinese culture whose life and career are inextricably entwined with modern Taiwanese history. This idea is emphasized in the film's very structure, which often collapses past and present, leaps over years in a single cut, or lets important events happen offscreen. Li narrates most of the film's events in voice-over, but he also appears onscreen, often in the settings where events have just taken place. His narration works like a dialogue with the images, frequently providing subtle insights into scenes that don't immediately reveal their significance. The film includes puppetry performances which are wonders in themselves, and is punctuated by gorgeous landscape shots which echo traditional Chinese landscape painting. Indeed, all of the film's more radical formal devices have their roots in Chinese aesthetic traditions, which emphasize flow over completeness. These ideas go back thousands of years, but when Hou applies them to film they result in a remarkably rich and entirely modern cinematic form.