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The original title of Yang Li-chou’s latest documentary, which means “The Red Box” in Chinese, alludes to the small artifact which represents the spirit and traditions of Taiwanese puppet maestro Chen Hsi-huang and his art form. Its English counterpart, meanwhile, points to Chen’s troubled relationship with his father, the legendary puppeteer-actor Li Tian-lu, best known for his starring roles in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind, City of Sadness and, of course, The Puppetmaster.
While there are overlaps between these two themes, Yang struggles to make them evident within Father‘s 100-minute running time. With his archival research and interviews conducted with Chen and his associates over a period of 10 years, the doc remains a very important chronicle of a very traditional and politically charged Taiwanese art. Making its international premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the film could find a footing at festivals and also serve as part of a double-bill with any of the Li-starring Hou films — or maybe as a bonus feature on future DVD releases of these titles.
Chen’s daddy issues — if a pensioner could still have that — are evident from the very beginning, as Yang asks his subject to talk about his father. Chen’s curt response illustrates perfectly his conflicted feelings: It must have been difficult for a 87-year-old to find himself still being introduced, at events at home and abroad, as “the son of Li Tian-lu” first and foremost.
Throughout the doc, Chen recalls his troubled relationship with a father who has always kept him at arm’s length. He says he fell out of Li’s favor because he has his mother’s surname, the result of his father marrying into a clan higher in the social ladder; he also remembers Li as caring little about his family, splitting his time between the constant touring and an extramarital affair.
In spite of all this, Li’s iconic shadow looms large. Chen speaks of how he needs to “kill his father” figuratively so as to stand on his own — something he put into action when he established his own troupe instead of inheriting his father’s, the control of which eventually went to Chen’s younger brother Li Chuan-zan (who has a cameo alongside Juliette Binoche in Hou’s 2007 film Flight of the Red Balloon). It’s obviously the endgame to years of pain: When an offscreen Yang talks about Li Tian-lu’s kind-old-man screen persona, Chen’s swift response is: “Tender, huh?”
Interviews with Hou and musician-actor Lim Giong, who plays Li in The Puppetmaster, elaborate further Chen’s life as a wronged son. But the documentary also positions him as a dismayed patriarch of sorts, as he becomes a surrogate father to his struggling proteges, all of whom are trying to fight against the representation of puppet theater as a spent force in Taiwanese culture.
For those who understand the context of its protagonists and the history of puppet theater in Taiwan, Father is informative and even at times affecting — especially during the final part, as onscreen texts reveal how some of the interviewees had passed away after the final cut of the film was locked.
But the documentary could pose challenges for those who are not aware of the nuances of all this, as Yang and his five editors seem unable to tease a coherent narrative out of the multiple issues arising from the many possible approaches in exploring Chen’s life and work. Still, the lush sequences in which Chen illustrates his technique — close-ups of his hand movements, for example, or an extract of a performance — make up for Father‘s flaws.
Production company: Backstage Studios
Director-cinematographer: Yang Lichou
Producer: Michelle Chu, Huang Dan-chi, Tian Shin-hua
Executive producer: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Music: Ko Chih-hao, Lee Che-yi
Sales: Backstage Studios
In Taiwanese and Mandarin
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