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Critics reviews
The Puppetmaster
Hou Hsiao-hsien Taiwan, 1993
I love this film. It’s the Hou Hsiao-hsien film I would take to my grave, the one many others would too. It’s just that “greatness” is not quite the right word to ascribe to such a self-effacing movie. It’s long but not big, complex but not epic, morally committed but not given to proselytizing, and offers no grand spittle in the face of the cruelty of colonization.
August 13, 2008
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The viewer becomes aware of the mechanics of Hou’s film — the film’s theatricality, its existence in the realm of fiction, is made manifest. The figures of the puppetmaster’s personal history become like his puppets, performing a repeated, stylized version of the past on a small stage.
July 11, 2004
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By tackling history through the prism of one man’s tumultuous life, Hou forms a link between the personal and the political, and in the figure of Li—a person whose life eerily mirrors his country’s half-century struggle for identity—the filmmaker finds an ideal vehicle through which to tell Taiwan’s story of subjugation, resistance, and liberation.
September 18, 2003
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Hou’s films, like a Chinese painting, are deliberately designed to incorporate the aesthetic of ‘liu-pai’ (opening the mind to what is not shown on screen). In this film, using dark interior shots with light coming only from the ceiling, Hou creates an abiding mood of nostalgia… The film is a haunting portrait of a people who have lost their way and are seeking to regain their cultural identity.
May 22, 2003
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You will notice that the film is occasionally different from what Tien-lu is actually saying in his first-person monologue. For instance, in Scene #52, (2) Tien-lu explains that his father-in-law woke up in the middle of the night, realizing he had fallen asleep in a coffin and shivering from malaria, when we clearly see him wake up in the morning. To allow such moments of contradiction is obviously a conscious decision that re-enforces the structural freeness of the film.
July 18, 2000
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The film covers much ground, from the collapse of feudal society to the defeat of the Japanese, but the overall pace is slow and contemplative, and the focus is deliberately narrow. Hou has been moving towards this storytelling style for years, and it’s probably too minimalist to make new converts. But long-term admirers (and dope heads) will come out of the film with a vivid sense of Chinese folk-culture and an agreeably blurred vision of the relations between an individual and his society.
May 11, 1994
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[Hou’s films] don’t serve their meanings up to you on a platter, and they’re too philosophical to ram you in the gut the way that most movies (and their publicity campaigns) are currently expected to. But if a more awesome and affecting new picture than The Puppet Master has turned up in Chicago this year—a movie more relevant to the future of cinema and the 21st century—I haven’t seen it.
December 03, 1993
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For all the emphasis on real time, a single cut can span a dozen years even as the voice-over loops over and around the various staged scenes, knotting a story line so unobtrusively complicated, it makes a time traveler like Alain Resnais seem all thumbs. Forget what the hypemeisters tell you, a movie of this magnitude doesn’t appear in New York every week. Farewell My Concubine suggests the second coming of Irving Thalberg; The Puppetmaster is more like a rebirth of the cinema itself.
October 12, 1993