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Winstar Home Video presents
The Puppetmaster (1993)

"There is always someone pulling the strings..."
- (tag line)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: October 02, 2001

Stars: Li Tien-lu, Lin Chung, Yang Li-Yan
Other Stars: I Toshiro, Tsai Chen-nan
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mature themes)
Run Time: 02h:21m:58s
Release Date: September 25, 2001
UPC: 720917528625
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

There are certain times, when in the presence of that vague entity "Art," that one knows what they are viewing is important, but nonetheless some of the intended impact is hopelessly lost. That does not diminish the scope of that particular work, it just means that the viewer does not connect with the artist's intent. During my viewing of the Winstar DVD release of celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster (1993) I felt that same twinge of stupidity when I know that I am missing something.

The Puppetmaster is the semi-biographical story of Li Tien-Lu, who was a renowned Taiwanese puppeteer, and was actually deemed a "national treasure" by that country. The film spans the period of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan from 1895 through 1945, and simultaneously covers the puppeteer's struggles during that time, beginning with his birth in 1909.

I can't claim to have in-depth, personal understanding of the impact of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan during that time, and as a result much of the full affect of Hsiao-hsien's film slid past me like a ghost. Admittedly, I had difficulty comprehending what was going on for the first thirty minutes or so, and when a film runs over two hours, you really hate to get lost at the onset. I don't fault Hsiao-hsien's presentation, but rather my lack of awareness on the subject. As a sidebar, I should mention that I thoroughly enjoyed the visual aspect of this film immensely.

In this film, the life of puppeteer Li Tien-Lu is traced ever so slowly, through his extended family experiences, and most significantly, that of his love of a young prosititute. The daily hardships brought on by the Japanese occupation linger everywhere in Li Tien-Lu's world, and Hsiao-hsien painstakingly recounts that struggle. The moments that feature Li Tien-Lu's own narration are the most succinct and direct, and do serve to clarify some of the events shown onscreen. The abundance of characters is occasionally confusing, and at times it was somewhat difficult to know who was who, and their relationship to each other. No doubt this is a time when subtitles become a detriment, as the viewer is forced to spend more time reading, and working to understand the meaning, while at the same time missing the impressive visual styling of Hsiao-hsien's filmmaking.

The traditional beauty of Taiwan has been captured beautifully by Hsiao-hsien, and he has generously sprinkled this film with a number of lovely and haunting images. One of the final, pivotal scenes in The Puppetmaster is that of a group of Taiwanese scavenging scrap metal from sabotaged Japanese planes near the final days of the occupation, and after absorbing at least some of Li Tien-Lu's tale, that sequence is very moving. Visually compelling filmmaking is not constrained by language, and Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster is an example of that.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Winstar has released The Puppetmaster in a 1.33:1 full-frame, nonanamorphic transfer. It would appear the original source print was somewhat flawed, because the end result is a transfer plagued by excessive nicks and scratches. Daylight sequences have a natural, full color field, with consistent flesh tones. However, the night scenes, as well as the dimly lit interiors, have extremely poor contrast, with murky shadow delineation. These shots are also marred by color bloom and over saturation at times.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Mandarin and Taiwaneseno

Audio Transfer Review: The Puppetmaster is presented in a noticeably one-dimensional sounding 2-channel Dolby stereo mix. The multi-language dialogue is clean, though there is an overall flatness that seems to permeate the audio track.

The sound field did very little to draw me into the film.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Flowers Of Shanghai
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Li Family Tree
  2. Traditional Puppet Roles
Extras Review: Winstar has missed a golden opportunity to expose Western audiences to Hou Hsiao-hsien by not including some type of commentary track, perhaps by a film scholar or historian. It is obvious that Hsiao-hsien is a powerful filmmaker, yet some of the subject matter in The Puppetmaster could have been enhanced and explained more by the clarifications on a commentary track. The supplementals included here are:

Li Family Tree
A one-screen photo "family tree" of the film's Li clan. This is a somewhat unique device to present a clear lineage of the various characters.

Traditional Puppet Roles
A brief, but informative text explanation of the various types of traditional puppet characters. Those include: Sheng (male), Tan (female), Ching (painted faces), Mo (elderly) and Chou (clowns). This is the type of material that could make this film more informative if it were part of an educational commentary track.

Flowers Of Shanghai trailer
A widescreen, English-narrated trailer for what is probably Hsiao-hsien's most Western accessible film.

Production Notes
Solid text-based information that should have been presented via commentary, if you ask me.

Filmographies & Awards, the requisite English subtitles and 16 chapter stops complete the bonus materials.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster is intended as an epic tale of a celebrated man's life during the difficult Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Not surprisingly, it was awarded the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1993. However, this is not as mainstream Western accessible as Hsiao-hsien's The Flowers Of Shanghai, and as such it is often hard to follow.

I recognize that The Puppetmaster is significant filmmaking, by an important filmmaker, but I struggled to fully focus on the fine points of Hsiao-hsien's story.


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