Until last year, when WinStar scooped up the rights to six of his features for a touring retrospective and subsequent video release, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien was almost a mythical figure in this country, the fabled territory of big-city cineastes and film-festival circuiteers. Distributors were scared off by the seemingly impenetrable "foreignness" of Hou's work, which wholly rejects Western dramatic conventions in favor of long, scrupulously composed master shots, elliptical narratives, and a way of viewing the past through a personal and culturally specific lens. Granted, it takes time and patience (and maybe a little research) to get acclimated to the formal and historical complexity of Hou's films, but 1993's The Puppetmaster and 1998's Flowers Of Shanghai, the first Hou films to be released on video and DVD, are a good place to start. If the two movies have anything in common, it's their micro-scale insularity, their intense focus on characters that try to steel themselves from the harsh dictates of the outside world. The second in a trilogy on Taiwanese history (preceded by 1989's City Of Sadness and followed by 1996's Goodbye South, Goodbye), The Puppetmaster takes place during the Japanese occupation of the country from 1895 until the end of WWII. Rather than chronicle a checklist of the period's major events, Hou shows how they impress on the tumultuous life of Li Tianlu, Taiwan's most celebrated puppeteer, and a man Hou once called "a living encyclopedia of Chinese tradition." Born in 1909, Li appeared as an actor in two of Hou's previous films, but his presence in The Puppetmaster, narrating staged scenes of his own life after they unfold, creates a unique amalgam of fiction and documentary techniques. Though it's difficult to understand some of the cultural nuances and keep track of the large cast of characters (a task made easier by the DVD's helpful "family tree"), Li's remarkable story provides a strong enough through-line to hold the larger picture together. His gift for theatrics spares him from the cruel fate visited on many of his family members, but it also holds him in the sway of forces beyond his control, leading him at one point to participate in WWII propaganda plays for the Japanese. The idea of puppeteer-as-puppet may be a little on-the-nose, but it's an illuminating metaphor for a country struggling to find its own space between the opposing influences of China and Japan. To extend the metaphor further, Hou inserts performance footage that's sequenced like a parallel history, moving from Peking Opera to puppet troupes to crude propaganda, until the triumphant final image, in which Li (and Taiwan) can finally set his own stage. Though strictly classified as a historical drama about turn-of-the-century China, Flowers Of Shanghai creates a beguiling world unto itself, sealed off from all other worlds, real or cinematic. Try as they might, the clients and "flower girls" at a Shanghai brothel cannot escape its suffocatingly ornate interiors, so instead they turn to the numbing lethargy of the opium pipe. Hou's precise, seductive style—marked here by lamp-lit interiors, gently swaying camera movements, and a simple, gorgeous violin strain—communicates their anguish without excessive punctuation. Flowers Of Shanghai is concerned with the commodification of sex and its hurtful consequences, but Hou leaves the perversion and beatings off-screen. What remains is a succession of tableaux so vividly realized in purely cinematic terms that the emotions seem to waft from the screen like smoke.
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