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January 27, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 3

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The Puppetmaster/Xi meng ren sheng
Hou Hsiao-hsien -1993

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Good Men, Good Women/Hao nan hao nu
Hou Hsiao-hsien -1995
both Sino All Region DVD

The third and fourth discs of the Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection have the earliest films previously available on DVD individually. The films are also the ones that have been covered well by other writers. Not in the collection are the two films made after Dust in the Wind. Currently unavailable are Daughter of the Nile (1987) and A City of Sadness, the latter key in Hou's interest in the political and cultural history of Taiwan. It is worth noting for those interested in Hou's earliest films that two, Cheerful Wind and Green, Green Grass of Home have DVD versions available.

The Puppetmaster in this collection is again the full screen version. At the website "DVD Beaver", someone at Fox Lorber claimed that the full screen version was the only copy available for transfer. Evidently, this seems to have been the only version available for Sino. Some of the shots suffer due to the cropping on the sides, yet even in its less than perfect presentation, The Puppetmaster is one of Hou's most involving films. On the surface, it would seem that the elements that would be detrimental have little effect in making this film quite watchable.

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The story of puppetmaster and actor Li Tien-lu (seen above), the film is also the story about Japan's occupation of Taiwan up through World War II. Through Li, Hou explores the conflict between the Chinese identity of many of the Taiwanese residents and the political and cultural demands of Japan that were effected beginning in 1895. In one early scene, the men in Li's family are forced to cut off their pigtails by government edict. In a later scene, Li's position as a performing artist entails his creating a puppet show that is propaganda on behalf of the Japanese military forces. Hou cuts between scene of the real 82 year old Li telling his story to the camera, and re-enacted scenes from Li's life. Simply watching the octogenarian tells his own story is enthralling.

Just as one is riveted by Li speaking for himself, so Hou succeeds in letting the scenes play out, mostly with little or no camera movement. At one point in Li's story, he is living in a brothel, in love with one of the women of the house. The delicate lighting which barely illuminates the faces of the characters is one of the painterly aspects of The Puppetmaster. In one scene, the actor playing Li is sitting at a table reading, while we hear the voice of a woman offering herself to Li while his lover is away. While the camera does not move, the scene achieves a comic peak in the tension between a man seemingly content to be alone, and the voice of a woman who does not give up easily. To describe what Hou does as minimalism is missing the point. The Puppetmaster is the work of a filmmaker who is confident enough in himself and his material to tell a story as simply as possible.

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Hou cuts between past and present in Good Men, Good Women. The connections between past and present are more abstract. Annie Shizuka Inoh plays two parts, as the actress Liang Ching who finds herself looking back at events in her life from a few years ago, and as the resistance fighter Chiang Bi-Yu, whose book was the basis for part of the film. Liang portrays Chiang in the film within the film, titled Good Men, Good Women. The present is in color while the past is in black and white.

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Although the contrast between past and present is something of a continuation with what Hou had done with The Puppetmaster, the connections to be made seem vague outside of the casting of the lead actress in her two roles. That both women are in love with men who died young, and by violent means, seems trivialized when one is a former resistance fighter who fought Japanese authority in World War II in the Forties and is deemed a Communist sympathizer in the Fifties for that same reason, while the contemporary man is an unsuccessful small time gangster.

Good Men, Good Women does not work as a total piece, but there are several moments that stand out. Most successful are the contemporary scenes of Annie Shizuka Inoh padding around her apartment in the opening scene, and scenes with Jack Kao as her lover, dancing in front of him, or the two making love in front of a mirror. The flashback to the young, naive resistance fighters joining forces with the mainland fighters is illustrative of the cultural and language barriers that have existed between people collectively known as Chinese. It could also be that Good Men, Good Women was not intended to fit past and present in an obvious way, but rather that Hou is showing that the past is not part of a continuum but a series of tenuously connected fragments.

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The Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection is available from HK Flix, along with Cheerful Wind and Green, Green Grass of Home.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 27, 2009 04:27 PM


I've not seen The Puppetmaster, but cropping seems a crime against someone who composes his frames so meticulously.

Posted by: Rick at February 10, 2009 09:21 AM