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Review: The Puppetmaster

4.0

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The Puppetmaster

For a director whose deliberate, demanding work sometimes receives criticism for being too boring, impenetrable, and difficult to follow, Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien remains a master at conveying movement, progression, and a sense of the inexorable rotations of the wheel of time. Though somewhat aesthetically similar to contemporaries Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai (as well as Japan’s late, legendary Yasujirô Ozu, to whom Hou paid tribute with 2003’s Café Lumière), it is Hou, more than any other living filmmaker, who is capable of elegantly and eloquently evoking humanity’s unstoppable advancement into the future via every subtle camera movement, understated musical gesture, or melancholy fade to black. Hou is famous for not employing standard cinematic storytelling techniques like insert shots and cutaways, two omissions that—when coupled with his preference for long, unbroken master shots with little lateral and horizontal movement—create a visual stasis that, ironically, heightens one’s sensitivity to the burdensome heft and evolution of each passing second, minute, and year. Clichéd as it may sound, Hou’s films are designed to be experienced as well as watched, since they require a willingness to attune one’s faculties not just to the literal action at hand, but also to the rhythmic, measured melody of Hou’s mise-en-scène.

As Hou’s cinema concerns itself with the weight of time, so too does it narratively address the past’s never-ending influence on the present, a recurring thematic preoccupation that reached its apex in 1993’s The Puppetmaster. Having previously cast amateur actor Li Tien-lu in Dust in the Wind, Daughter of the Nile, and City of Sadness, Hou decided to mine the elderly gentleman’s life story for a film about Taiwanese life under Japanese occupation, a 50-year span from 1895 to the conclusion of World War II that corresponded with Li’s rise to prominence as an acclaimed and beloved puppeteer. Combining conventional dramatization (featuring Lim Giong as Li the young adult, Lin Chung as Li the adolescent) with narration from the actual Li and documentary-ish interviews in which Li recounts key moments from his life, the film is a stylistic amalgam that highlights the dichotomies between fiction and fact, memory and reality even as it seeks to synthesize them into a harmonious tapestry. 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.

“So that’s how I was born,” says Li during The Puppetmaster’s opening scene, having already recounted (over the sight of his grandfather doting on him as an infant) how his last name, shared by his maternal side of the family, was given to him through a careful series of arrangements between his father and grandfather. That Li ascribes his origins to a set of legal provisions immediately connects him to his occupied homeland—a disempowered territory now defined by the rules and regulations of a foreign party—just as his age-old profession ties him to the ancestral traditions of Taiwanese culture. Such associations run throughout Hou’s biographical tale, with Li’s rebellion against his abusive father and stepmother, his exile from puppeteering after the Japanese forbade public performances, his compulsory work for a Japanese propaganda puppet troupe (part of the government’s “Japanization movement”), and his ultimate triumphant rebirth as a celebrated artist all designed to reflect the upheaval of a country in which the indigenous population was forced to accept that, as one drunken Imperial Army soldier tells Li, “You can never escape the fact that you are a colonized islander. A third-class citizen.”

Yet despite these clear-cut parallels, Hou’s rigorously formal film is far from straightforward. Rather, it’s a beautifully assembled series of narrative ellipses, faux-reliable commentary and playful artifice that, besides seeking to link the modern with the bygone, also delicately strives to reinforce the notion that the past is unavoidably fictionalized through memory. The first presentation of a Li puppet show begins with a head-on shot of the ornate stage before cutting to a cross-section view that reveals the puppeteer pulling the strings behind the curtain, an illuminating image of how Li’s art is a man-made construction that, along with an opera performance in which the audience’s shuffling and seated foreground silhouettes emphasize the overriding staginess of the theatrical routine on display, articulates the embroidery involved in storytelling. By conceding that stories, both those rooted in fiction and fact, are synthetic constructs fashioned by people, Hou admits to his own film’s questionable veracity as well as shows how long-gone incidents and emotions are constantly revisited through the filter of one’s recollections, a semi-reliable sieve inevitably prone to embellishment and distortion.

Nowhere in The Puppetmaster is this idea more clearly illustrated than in Li’s infrequent voice-over and interview interludes, which find him describing key episodes (such as the specifics surrounding how his father-in-law contracted malaria in a coffin) that Hou has already dramatized, in slightly different form, minutes earlier. By having Li relate altered versions of things we’ve already witnessed, Hou strikingly points out how the act of remembering invariably sparks a metamorphosis of what’s come before. Yet just as importantly, such a device allows the filmmaker to express the passage of time by asking viewers to experience the film’s occurrences in both real-time and, through our own reliving of certain scenes more than once via Li’s delayed annotations, the past. This process of experiential repetition is the film’s most arresting and vital structural component, linking now with then, the real with the semi-real, in a web of era-intertwined symbiosis. And through forcing us to be continually and acutely aware of his story’s fractured chronological procession, Hou also creates a tangible impression of history’s ubiquitous impact on the present.

Shots of tiny individuals either set against the countryside’s towering mountains or enveloped by lush forests while navigating a bridge situated in the trees skillfully impart the enveloping enormity of the film’s locales. And by utilizing a tight 1.33:1 aspect ratio and interior doorways to visually enclose his screen (as is his trademark), Hou conveys the constriction of geography and the past on his characters, all of whom—by walking in and out of the near-motionless frame—come across as mere transitory figures in a static, eternal environment. Yet despite The Puppetmaster’s somewhat imposing evocation of man’s relationship to nature (and national history), the director nonetheless conjures up a dose of joyous, transcendent magic through Li’s regularly amusing anecdotes about his relatives and friends (which are filled with talk of superstition) and the recreations of Li’s enchantingly elaborate puppet shows. In these performances’ exquisite, stunning glory, Hou’s masterpiece becomes not only a depiction of one man’s decades-spanning bond with his familial birthplace, but also, just as affectingly, a tribute to art’s, and the artist’s, power to help us comprehend and confront the world around us.

Cast: Li Tien-lu, Lin Chung, Lim Giong, Yang Li-yin, I Toshiro, Tsai Chen-nan, Hwa Bai Ming, Choung Cheng Fue, Huang Chingju, Kao Tunghsiu, Li Hei Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien Screenwriter: Wu Nien-jen, Chu Tien-wen Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1993 Buy: Video

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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