Like Father, Like Son?

A Maestro and His Saga

It would be hard not to mention Hou Hsiao-hsien’s biopic “The Puppetmaster” when we have the documentary film “Father” as our subject (original title in Chinese: “Red Box”). Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 and honored with The Jury Prize, “The Puppetmaster” saw the Taiwanese film auteur Hou, whose long-take aesthetics and mise-en-scène have influenced many successors, portrays the legendary puppeteer of budaixi (“glove puppetry”) – Li Tien-Lu based on his memoirs. It might be the first time when Li, through the lens of Hou, gained a wide international reputation for his artistry, especially in Europe. Originated in the 17th century, budaixi has mainly developed in Taiwan and is considered one of the most appreciated performance art forms that truly represents the island. And Li is not just a well-known puppeteer – he has become a synonym of traditional budaixi. The film “The Puppetmaster” is dedicated to his early life, roughly till the Japanese colonial time. But Li’s whole life is also closely connected with different stages of budaixi development – a life that goes through the Japanese authorities (when entertainment spoken in Hokkien or Taiwanese such as budaixi was censored), the Kuomintang governmental period (when budaixi became extremely popular, but its performing language Taiwanese was banned to be used in public), and later, the household television era (when the open-air budaixi was gradually replaced by TV programs).

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After Li passed away in 1998, it was his second son who took over Li’s troupe “Also Like Life”, while his eldest son Chen Hsi-huang, whose last name is “Chen” instead of “Li” due Li’s matrilocal marriage, found another ensemble and has been carrying on his independent puppeteer career. In spite of the autonomy of his troupe and his own accomplishment, what constantly haunts Chen Hsi-huang has been the lifelong introduction as “Li Tien-lu’s son”, especially every time before the show. A puppet theater master under the shadow of another master – it became the predestination of Chen. Strangely enough, in Chen’s own words, his father was particularly strict to him, and he rarely had real conversations with his father. Nevertheless, Chen’s life – inseparable from his own hand-made puppets – had still become a life deeply associated with his father’s legacy. At the age of 88, is Chen still on the search of his real self? Such became the main question of the documentary film “Father”.

To go around this question while reflecting Chen’s significant, decades-long contribution to budaixi as well as the current situation of this withering puppet theater– director Yang Li-chou spent ten years accompanying Chen’s performance tour around the world and in Taiwan. The film develops into a sketch of a modern budaixi troupe, whose members are striving to preserve the traditions. It’s also a revisit to the budaixi history and gazes into a performance art that demands the most delicate movements of hands and fingers. Moreover, it investigates the relationship between Chen and Li, as if it attempted to help Chen free himself from the shadow of the father figure and recognize himself as the national cultural treasure of Taiwan.

As one of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers in the cinema history of Taiwan, Yang edited his material carefully, constructing the film with loose conversations, staged performances, frontal interviews, and his own commentaries – at times in non-chronological order. There are scenes when Chen was watching his own interviews with Yang, so to speak the self-reflecting moments. There are scenes when Chen watches the flashy kind of new budaixi that has more interest in special effects than in the heritage, only to melancholically remind the audience of the golden times of budaixi when it created magic merely with bare hands. And then, there are also the interviews with Hou Hsiao-hsien and the actor/composer Lim Giong, who played Li Tien-lu in “The Puppetmaster”. Lim observed the relationship between “the quiet man” Chen and his father on the set of “The Puppetmaster”, and describes it as “distant”, confirming the assumption that Chen had difficulty to connect with his father, although he has been seen as the self-evident successor of the artistry. This is probably why the director Yang makes such an almost provocative commentary right in the middle of “Father”: “…(Chen) has to kill his father. Only when he has done that can he be his true self.” Father

In front of the camera, the seemingly humble, modest and tender retiring “Master” Chen hasn’t had any negative word towards his father – all we hear would be appreciation and praises. But how he seemed to suppress his emotions left us to wonder if there’s a knot in his heart that will ever be untied. While his own family life remains almost invisible throughout the film, “Father” zooms in the Li-Chen father-son relation profoundly, but in this manner, also highlights master Chen’s own artistic achievement and his efforts on preserving budaixi as an original art form of Taiwan. There should be a unique and irreplaceable “Puppetmaster” living within him, just like within his father.

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