“’Drama, dream, life’ is The Puppetmaster’s Chinese title, and this offers a clue to the structure of Li’s divination.
First, showing the drama: by representing events such as the memorial of Douki-san or fight with the drunken Japanese soldier, shot so far away as to be almost illegible. Second, telling the dreams: using stories in voice-over accompanied by landscapes or other ambient scenes. Examples are Li’s recounting the circumstances of his birth, grandmother’s illness, the deaths of grandfather and other relatives, and so on. Eight times Li’s voice comes up, commenting on things we are about to see, may have seen but not registered, or do not see at all. These voiceovers usually lead to Li’s onscreen appearance, which is presented six times. These sequences present the life, inextricably rooted with the drama and dreams. The life stories are sometimes riveting, like the mistress’s frog poultice or the irony of a mob scene. Li tells us Japanese soldiers were savagely beaten for burning rationed rice—but which was no longer edible. His anecdotes may also be tedious, like the detail about the Shirasaki cigarettes smoked by Leitzu. The mob scene is never dramatized, remaining a reminiscence, but after the Shirasaki story the courtship of Leitzu and Li is staged in a teahouse, where they sensuously light cigarettes by brushing their lips together.”
~Darrell William Davis
From 1983-1995 Hou’s films focused, almost in their entirety, on biographical retellings of momentary, fragmentary images. His life, his collaborator’s, his country’s; they meld into a single history. His works give the feeling on being able to expound upon its direct matter and the spaces in-between; his historical works feeling intensely modern, his modern works giving off a sense of nostalgia for a dead past.
The Puppetmaster is Taiwan. The construction of its most basic premise living in a world between fictive realism, fantastic history and interview documentary. Taiwan being, at once, a conquered nation, a rogue state and free republic (after decades of martial law). The film never expresses the truth, the simple relevant truth, but the complex, unintended, and minute contradictions that created the last, fleeting gasps of the first-half of the 20th century’s dying colonialism (or so history tells us); the contradictions that create the eternal, wayward search of life in the second-half of the 20th century.
The telephoto compositions flatten space. Making it all too clear the false three-dimensionality of this projected, flickering series of tiny pictures. As if, even in the finding of the soul of history, it is but the dramatic dream of life, a mirror image at best, a reflection one takes as real.