Hou Hsiao Hsien’s City of Sadness, the first of his ‘Taiwan Trilogy’, addresses the historical wound left by the February 28 Incident. On the surface, its successor, The Puppetmaster, documents the first half of the life of puppet master Li Tian-lu with whom Hou collaborated on preceding films, and through it, the history of the Japanese occupation. Yet stylistically, The Puppetmaster, with its complex form and structure, is a departure from run-of-the-mill biopics.
Li Tian-lu’s narration of his own life forms the basis of the film – from his birth just after the Japanese takeover to their withdrawal at the end of WWII. There are also dramatized scenes of his life experiences, scenes of Li talking about them, and snippets from puppet and Taiwanese opera performances.
For the drama, Hou uses his signature approach of the quietly observant long take from a distance, and ups the game. The film only has 100 shots, each lasting on average 85 seconds. Hou’s strong penchant for ellipsis is apparent here; the film has no continuous ‘plot’, just scenes accompanying Li’s recollections. What’s more, the film strives to dilute the protagonist’s centre-stage position. Lim Giong (playing Li) makes his entry as one of many actors in a troupe.
Despite this ‘anti-biographical’ structure, Li still comes across as the focus, the chief storyteller. Viewers are guided to sort out the details of a scene by his vivid recollections which also help to fill the gaps among the dramatized sections. Then there are the on-camera ‘storytelling’ sessions which Hou admits are more powerful and moving than anything he puts on film. Half-documentary, half-drama, The Puppetmaster embodies the factual ambiguities that appears when history is revisited.
Though the film endeavours to tell a history of Taiwan through a portrait of Li Tian-lu, Li’s verbalized accounts are so personal that they fall outside the national identity framework of Taiwan’s official history. This is apparent in his relationship with the Japanese whom he sees as imperfect mortals like himself. He didn’t mind helping the Japanese as long as they paid him so he could raise his family. When Japanese rule ended, he celebrated like everybody else. In him, we see a man of the grassroots who was only concerned with day-to-day life, and was completely uninterested in Taiwan’s history of changing national identity (as subjects under the Qing, the Japanese, and Nationalist rule). This coincides with Hou Hsiao Hsien’s people-centered humanistic concerns.