Budaixi, the art of traditional Taiwanese puppet theatre, is a form that’s fast dying out – not least because of the persistent erosion of the native Taiwanese dialect with which it is most closely associated, but there are those desperately trying to save it despite the relative lack of interest from audiences and the cultural sector. The “father” of the art, Li Tien-Lu, will be familiar to many as the inspiration behind Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Puppetmaster, as well as several appearances in Hou’s films including his memorable role as the grandfather in Dust in the Wind. It is not Li, however, who is the subject of Yang Lichou’s documentary but his son – Chen Hsi-huang.
Chen Hsi-huang, now very elderly, is an exiled master of the art who has dedicated his remaining time to ensure its survival by attempting to teach the next generation. Chen is not fussy – he will teach anyone who wants to learn including those from abroad and frequently tours his shows around the world often pairing them with local examples of puppet theatre. His standards are, however, high and he does not entirely approve of the “modernisation” of the art believing that while innovation is one thing technique is another and what he sees in the next generation often disappoints him.
Yang opens with a hypnotic sequence of Chen’s naked hand rehearsing doll movements against a black screen, showcasing his now gnarled fingers bearing the effects of a lifetime’s experiences. Yet despite his various successes, Chen still feels himself slighted and as if he has something left to prove – perhaps ironically, he cannot seem to emerge from the shadow of his late father even now himself in advanced old age. Yang’s subtle suggestion lays the blame for Chen’s internalised resentment on the confucian society and its patriarchal obsession with the “father”. Li had married into his wife’s family and so, as is the custom, his first son took his mother’s surname – Chen, something which seems to have placed a wedge between parent and child leaving Chen more or less rejected by his father simply for having the wrong name. For this reason, he was prevented from inheriting Li’s puppetry company (that honour went to his younger brother surnamed Li) which might, in a way, have been a blessing in giving him the opportunity to remove himself and start again with his own company under his own name were it not for the fact that he is almost always introduced as the son of Li Tien-Lu.
In the traditional arts, it is not uncommon to think of a master as a “father” to his pupils and this does seem to be something Chen took to heart for good or ill. His own father had been extremely strict, often beating him with the head of a doll when he made a mistake. Chen is careful not to make the same mistake with his pupils, but is demanding none the less and often disappointed. His fatherly fixation is perhaps mirrored in his mild rejection of his own first pupil, standing in for a son (his own child did not follow him into the profession), whom he declined to name as a successor despite knowing that he is the most skilled member of the troupe. Somewhat embittered, Chen struggles to escape from the traps set by his father both in terms of his life and of his art.
Chen’s story feeds into that of Budaixi, set against 50 turbulent years of political history which saw it banned by the Japanese for being too nationalist, then defacto banned because of a prohibition on native dialects only to be resurrected in Mandarin to be used for anti-communist propaganda and then the same but pro-China. Chen just wants to be a craftsman perfecting his technique and serving the patron god of puppeteers as best he can. As one of his pupils suggests, regarding Budaixi as an “art” and its practitioners “artists” may perhaps have been a mistake in encouraging the wrong kind of competition and thereby weakening the industry as a whole just when it should be uniting in a shared mission to save Budaixi from disappearing completely.
Chen too struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, perhaps gripping on too tightly to traditional Budaixi while rejecting its progeny in the burgeoning world of contemporary puppet theatre. Nevertheless, he was able to become a master of the art and to pass his knowledge on to a new generation committed to preserving it even in the face of mild opposition to a supposedly difficult, if infinitely beautiful, art form.
Father (紅盒子, Hóng Hézi) was screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.
Original trailer (English subtitles)