Referring to the Arts in The Puppetmaster





Referring to the Arts in The Puppetmaster

Films usually refer to other forms of media in order to develop new ideas or concepts within their structures. With directors and producers striving for a competitive edge, creativity certainly assumes an integral part in filmmaking and production. Hence, in order to facilitate such objectives, movies inculcate different media variations. Such forms may comprise live performances, art, and even music. In most cases, the inculcation of other media forms within a motion picture assist in making it more enjoyable and attractive to the audience it targets. In other cases, it is also safe to assume that the opposite happens. Nevertheless, it is impossible to dispute the involvement of other forms of media within films. In this context, The Puppetmaster, offers a perfect illustration of films that utilize to other media films. With reference to the film, Hou Hsiao-Hsien inculcates various aspects that serve different implications. 

In overview, The Puppetmaster focuses on the experiences of an old hand puppeteer by the name, Li Tien-lu. As one of Asia’s groundbreaking movies, the biographical motion picture depicts the early life of Li from his conception until his time of death in 1945 after the culmination of Japan’s five-decade rule over the island. The commemoration of the puppeteer within the film provides historical information on the life of Li based on his actions and obligations as a Taiwanese national and a purveyor of personal freedom. With the protagonist as a formidable example, most of the films directed by Hou tend to focus on the routine lives of the Taiwanese people, especially in relation to their experiences within the rural setting. Based on this thematic focus on the Taiwanese, The Puppeteer as well as other films by Hou maintain a nostalgic and neo-noir emotion and simultaneously, pose a distinctive feel of originality and realism derived from the application of a pragmatist approach (Ma 87).

As asserted, films inculcate disparate forms of media such as other movies or arts. Based on the direction of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, most of the films tend to possess a variety of forms and styles that advance the thematic subjects he advances from his narratives. One of the aspects referred to in movies comprises history. Usually, historical events and occurrences are often inculcated in films for purposes related to the medium’ specific theme. The historical context illustrated in The Puppetmaster offers an illustration of this. According to Ma (90), the inculcation of history by Ho depicts the way the past acts as an incumbent link to the present. The Puppetmaster’s utilization of past events narrates vernacularly the events that took place in Taiwan following its rule under the Japanese government. Moreover, such historical references act as a backdrop for narrating the experiences that the protagonist, Li, faced as a veteran puppeteer in colonial rule.

Indeed, with the narrative focused on Li, the respective film does depict the biographical character as an epithet of history. However, in a larger context, the inculcation of Li and the state’s history provide an even further illustration of the form of storytelling utilized at the time. Simply, the inculcation of Taiwanese history via a rural setting and Li’s mastery of puppetry reveal the extent to which The Puppetmaster integrated different aspects imperative to the Taiwanese culture, such as the popular form of storytelling known as budai xi (Ma 91).  The focus on Li and the need to advance the narrative’s theme influenced the incorporation of puppetry as an imperative media form within the film. Based on the biographical character, the historical references to Taiwan, and the lives of the rural villagers, The Puppetmaster subliminally referred to puppetry and simultaneously, depicted its significance among the inhabitants of the rural setting.

 The integration of puppetry reveals significant aspects about the respective film and its reference to art as an imperative media form for advancing its thematic subjects. With the realist tenets adopted in The Puppetmaster, it is possible to notice the convoluted aesthetics of the movie due to its evocative sounds and images, multi-faceted and elliptical narrative, and its utilization of voice-over storytelling (Ma 95). The integration of the lead hero’s puppetry narrations has derived novel prospects for communication via this particular film medium. The Puppetmaster requires the active participation of the audience in a consistent process of construction, imagination, and recollection (Ma 103). Additionally, the general narrative framework of ellipsis is illustrated by Hou’s focus on illustrating the significance of relationships. With reference to Chinese conventional opera, aspects such as ellipsis as well as other circuitous narrative measures are, paradoxically, straight to the point and uncomplicated.

The outcome of ellipsis within the motion picture exudes the austerity and purity normally exhibited in the original cinema. Following this, Ho integrates attempts that explore on the subject and connotations of the movie and the manner in which they are highlighted and enriched by the original framework and style of the film. Reiterating on the themes of the film that comprise drama, vision and life, the character of Li is used as an element specifically in illustrating the form of thought and philosophy that the Chinese apply despite their prevailing circumstances within the movie. Accordingly, the efforts of The Puppetmaster in capturing and storing the fundamental nature of Chinese life establish and document the traditions and practices of a bygone period, increasingly lost to a materialistic and Western-oriented society. By showing the art, relationships, and life of Li as the puppet master, the motion picture additionally suggests the interdependence that is present between life, art and the surreal quality mutual between both.

In the film, three key sections contribute to the overall plot. The foremost segment focuses on the protagonist’s domestic life and the relationships that he possesses with his family members. The middle part reveals Li’s relationship with Leitzu (a prostitute). The third section depicts the experiences faced by Li in relation to the Japanese Propaganda Unit while working as its main puppeteer and the trials faced by his family concerning evacuation. Simultaneously, The Puppetmaster constructs three perspectives. These comprise the protagonist’s testimony concerning his life until his time of death via storytelling and presence on screen, the director’s depiction of his life, as well as the theatrical performances, which illustrate the hero’s art 9Ma 100). These perspectives are balancing; at times, a connection is evident. Alternately, the perspectives are mutually separate and may tend to be differing. The association and recurrence of the perspectives constitute an artistic and illusory intervention.

Even though the narrative focuses on Li’s early life, it is not completely concentrated on him. In fact, The Puppetmaster is centered on the respective protagonist. In order to understand the character of Li and the connection to art, the vignettes that illustrate his connections with his father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, stepmother, his mistress and the colonialists enhance this perception. This is further illustrated by evidence of the protagonist who operates as the raconteur of the film. In this respect, it is impossible to deny the implications of the aspects inculcated within the motion picture, particularly in advancing the narrative by offering a thorough understanding of Li’s character in relation to his experiences and occupation of Taiwan under the rule of the Japanese at the time. With the film’s inclination towards the integration of ellipsis and loose storytelling causality, the character of Li is revealed considerably in harmony with the themes exploited. 

Aside from the incorporation of voice-over narration and an elliptical framework, the utilization of camera shots offers strategic significance to film based on the unique attributes of The Puppetmaster. In this context, the reference to storytelling is emphasized by the shots used to capture the protagonist while taking part in the respective tradition. Additionally, the off-screen antics employed by Hou illustrate the extent to which camera techniques are inculcated in The Puppetmaster. In this context, the use of the off-screen space enables Hou to expand the filmic space over the boundaries of the movie frame. The objective of this is to entail the stability between the external world and the action that takes place on screen. As such, the boundaries of the frame operate as windows on life. Undeniably, the use of the long takes and deep focus further re-establish the realist groundwork emphasized within the film.

The sequence of shots in the film, specifically in relation to budai xi shows its adherence to Chinese cultural aspects and an integration of modern cinematic techniques. According to Ma (92), The Puppetmaster displays Chinese puppetry in six scenes illustrated by social traditions such as seasonal festivals, the hero’s birthday party, and religious offerings. For instance, in pone of the scenes depicting a conventional family event, an establishing shot is utilized to depict a group of people and children witnessing a puppet theatrical performance. With this shot, the puppet performance fills the film screen’s frame (Ma 92). Accordingly, the movie’s illustration of the respective performance reruns a wistful populist daydream that provides a romanticized restaging of the audience made obsolete by the cinema. In this respect, The Puppetmaster offers a realist view of persons that occupy the realms of public sociality, mainly ordinary individuals. 

Further integration of filmmaking techniques is evidenced by the integration of the mise-en-scène within some of the movie’s sequences. The emphasis on the conventional puppetry show offers a mise-en-scène that exudes the presence of ordinary individuals taking part in the tradition of budai xi (Ma 92). Additionally, the use of the respective technique is represented by two actors participating in sword fighting during a Chinese opera play. In this context, the camera is positioned within a fixed stance while behind the audience. The aim of this is to offer the viewer with a complete view of on-stage action as well as the reactions taking place within the audience watching the performance. Despite the show’s supervision by a law enforcement officer, the performance corresponds to a typical and ordinary play. In this respect, the integration of such a shot and the Chinese opera performance offer an illustration of the film’s present’s association with the past respectively.


            In conclusion, the film, The Puppetmaster, integrates various aspects of film, which assist in establishing success as a superior autobiographical motion picture. The utilization of historical references such as Taiwan’s subservience under the Japanese and the illustration of the budai xi depict the different aspects that the movie uses in order to narrate the life of Li Tien-lu. The integration of contemporary film techniques further advances the themes of The Puppetmaster. For instance, establishing shots, long shots, and the mise-en-scène are used to represent imperative elements of narration such as the representation of the puppet theatrical performance in one of the Chinese traditional occasions. Indeed, The Puppetmaster not only reveres but also genuinely focuses on comprehending the realism and originality of Chinese cultural practices through the protagonist and puppeteer, Li Tien-lu. While looking for a storytelling framework that would illuminate the attitudes, tenets, and sentimental exhibitions of Chinese culture, Hou Hsiao-Hsien found his muse within the traditional arts.

Work Cited

Ma, Jean. “A Reinvention of Tradition: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Puppetmaster.” Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Austrian Film Museum Books). Ed. Richard I. Suchenski. Vienna: Austrian Film Museum, 2014. 87-105. Print.

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