PUPPET MASTER, THE (1993, Taiwan)
directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien


IMDB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107157

Submitted by edo on 2009-06-21

edo's comment:
This film marks the inaguration of Hou's mature style. Released four years after "A City of Sadness", the film runs only about twenty minutes shorter than its predecessor, and yet contains half as many shots and practically doubles its ASL.

A number of formal refinements characterize this work in contradistinction to the earlier, more esthetically diverse "A City of Sadness".

Firstly, Hou's use of medium close-ups and medium shots has become so infrequent in this film that I was prompted to merge them into the same category. Instead, the LS-MLS maintains and expands its dominance as the paradigmatic Hou frame. A little over a third of the film's running time (51.14m) is spent in static L-ML shots, whose ASL clocks in at a stunning 109.6 seconds (again double its counterpart in "A City of Sadness").

Another change has seen the landscape shot stripped of the autonomy it held in "A City of Sadness", where its lack of localization in narrative space-time served to enhance its cosmic resonance. In "The Puppet Master", the landscape has become the universal backdrop for the story of Li Tien-lu, and more generally for the story of Taiwan under Japanese rule. Thus, it has become fully integrated into the world of the narrative. Accordingly, I have merged the landscape into the category of the exterior, extreme long shot.

Finally, there are two new framing devices utilized here: the stage performances of puppetry and opera, and Li Tien-lu's interview vignettes. What is intriguing is how organically even these contextualizing frames have been integrated into the space and rhythm of Hou's film. Though they comprise only about 30 minutes of the film and punctuate its duration at intermittent, and inconsistent intervals, their average lengths (LiTien, 150.3 & Theatre, 122.7), which best those of the L-ML shots that make-up the central dramatic units of the film, testify to their thematic prominence in Hou's scheme.

The effect of this broad refinement of formal tactics is a more elegant and symmetrical temporal contour, one that follows quite closely the vicissitudes of the life staged before us.

For instance, the two prominent peaks in the film's cutting swing (at approx. 27 and 91 minutes respectively) more or less coincide with the two longest takes in the film. Both of these shots stage the dramatic climaxes of the film's two major subplots, and both precede and anticipate the loss of the two most remarkable characters in Li Tien-lu's life, his grandfather and the modern woman with whom he has a prolonged affair.

Number of shots:
MSL 31.2 50.1 80.9 30.6 125.4 155 128.3 11.7
StDev 22.6 38.6 102.8 24.7 28.4 47.2 57.6 7.4
Min 11.1 18.9 14.7 18.6 70.5 68.4 29.4 7.5
Max 97.5 153.3 440.4 87.9 163.5 225 189.9 24.9
CV 0.56 0.62 0.94 0.63 0.24 0.31 0.47 0.5

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Author: edo Date: 2009-06-21

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Author: edo Date: 2009-06-22

My improvised lexicon for Hou's shot scales. These definitions apply to both A City of Sadness and The Puppet Master more or less, but where they do not quite fit the latter I have commented on the alterations I made to scale categories in the author's comments for The Puppet Master.

Landscape: A shot representing a wide stretch of land and sky, emptied of characters and suspended between passages of the diegetic movement. It is a transition shot, emptied of thematic significance such that a range of emotions from longing to foreboding may breath through its space.

Exterior, Extreme Long Shot: These shots 'situate' or 'embed' figures and places in a larger social world and rhythm of life. Their exaggerated scale has the effect of trivializing the human presence and retarding all individual actions by plunging them into a larger sea of movement and stillness.

In both A City of Sadness and The Puppet Master, these shots often evoke the theater of the absurd.

Very Long Shot: In interior sequences of action, Hou often likes to set his camera at a pronounced and often interfering distance, so that actors or bits of setting partially obscure our view even as dire dramatic events unfold. Such shots are these. They are often deep-focus and less tightly compressed than the next scale down.

Long Shot - Medium Long Shot - For scenes in which characters are seated around a table discussing life and politics, this is Hou's preferred scale. These are dense, telephoto compositions for which it is often difficult to judge the proper scale as they consist in many striations of depth and surface.

Medium Shot - These shots are designed mostly to frame one or a couple of characters, creating a permeable membrane of space that feels vulnerable within a larger context. When more than two characters enter the shot, the compression of the telephoto produces a cramped, claustrophobic density that compromises the fragile integrity of individual figures.

Medium Close-Up - This is the last film by Hou in which the medium close-up is still understood and applied in a conventional sense. There are even a couple of scenes where Hou resorts to the classical mechanism of the shot-reverse shot. Nevertheless, usually the effect of the MCU in this film is to produce a further tightening of space. The realm of the individual constitutes a frail sliver of space in marked contradistinction to the large-scale landscape shots which present us with an eternally receding, hazy depth.

Variable Shot - Many of Hou's shots pass through one or more compositional scales in the business of their staging.  As reframings are employed liberally and intermittently, I have grouped shots containing camera movement or complex figure movement into the broader category of a 'variable shot'.

For both A City of Sadness and The Puppet Master, I have used the shot notes feature to describe individually each of these shots according to mode and function of varability, but there are twoprominent types of this kind of shot worth defining more specifically:

- Depth staging: Hou often likes to use staging in depth, often in conjunction with a simple camera movement such as a pan, to map intersecting regions of social space. For example, in the opening sequence, of A City of Sadness, a variable long take foregrounds big brother Wen-heung as he paces outside the room where his mistress is about to give birth. At the same time as he crosses into the dining space, a female servant traverse the background to appear in the kitchen behind Wen-heung. Thus, Hou lays bare the man's space in relation to that of his women.

- Action Staging: Interior scenes that prominently feature violent action of either physical or emotional sort occasion complex blocking and reframing. Here, the goal is to create a sense of stifling containment, of human beings flailing at each other within a constrained zone of action. What this kind of shot gestures at is something like a temporal aether, from which there is no escape for the figures who pass through the frame. This kind of staging and reframing becomes the paradigmatic mode of expression in many of Hou's mature works, especially  "Flowers of Shanghai", "Millennium Mambo", "Three Times", and "Flight of the Red Balloon" where the camera is set in nearly constant motion. Here, they are but one of many compositional modes in his repertoire.

Other - A City of Sadness features a large number and variety of shots which do not fit under any category. It also contains several intertitles, which I should have liked to have a separate space for, but have settled for merging into this miscellaneous section for convenience. I have designated all these intertitles using the notes feature. In keeping with its elevated sylistic rigour, The Puppet Master features only one atypical shot, a close-up of a photograph no less.

Author: edo Date: 2009-06-22

I should clarify my description of the MCU. When I say "This is the last film by Hou in which the medium close-up is still...", I am referring to A City of Sadness, rather than The Puppet Master.

Author: Ian Jones Date: 2009-09-16

 Edo - 

I apologize that I haven't added much commentary on this yet, but I did have at least one thing I wanted to point to:

"Variable Shot" - it's interesting how little this category is used in the film.  This is consistent of my memory of the style of "The Puppet Master," but I think it's worth pointing out that very quickly after this film the "Variable Shot" arguably became Hou's default stylistic option.  Trying to account for shot scale on an actual shot-for-shot basis in Hou's films has increasingly become an exercise in futility because of his deference to very fluid staging and considerably more variety of camera work within his longer takes. 

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