Thursday, February 10, 2011

Form and Function: A short observation on The Puppetmaster

The Puppetmaster is a rather singular film. It is certainly the most direct translation of the literary memoir form into a visual medium that I can think of. Its frequent use of narration from the film's subject (Tianlu Li), accompanied by either associational visuals or by a medium shot of the narrator, emphasises the importance of the spoken word and gives precedence to the recalled experiences of the speaker rather than the film maker's visual interpretations of his past. Similarly the past tense of his reminisces emphasises that the events of the film are historical. There is very little of the immediacy granted to history by more conventional biopics and more of a sense of a very particular, and now vanished, time and place.

This assertion of a historical past jibes well with the narrative's attention to such detail, which often takes precedence over the personal. While the family's visits to the opera and puppet shows could be inferred to have infused the young Tianlu Li with a love for the arts there are never any close-ups on his rapt face to emphasis this. Indeed in the first opera scene the most salient object is the soldier who is placed in the centre of the frame and obscures the figures on stage. The scene is more concerned with Japanese efforts to force their subjects to renounce their connection to the Qing dynasty and embrace Japanese culture than with any personal developments of the young puppeteer.

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