{Note: this review originally ran in THE NASHVILLE SCENE, but it seems to have disappeared from their site. Hence the references to Nashville in the opening paragraph.}

Over the course of the 90s, Iranian and Taiwanese cinema gradually rose from placement in obscure festivals to acclaim and release in American arthouses.  While itís taken longer for Taiwanese cinema to become recognized by distributors, it  eventually happened.  When WinStar took a chance on organizing a traveling Hou Hsaio-hsien retrospective and releasing Edward Yangís YI YI, they even achieved a modicum of commercial success. However, that Hou retrospective never made it to Nashville. THE PUPPETMASTER (1993) is only the second of his films to play here, following his 1998 breakthrough THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, which finally seemed to build critical acclaim into an audience.

To be fair, not all of this obscurity is due to American isolationism: Houís sales agents have reportedly asked an unreasonable sum for the   rights to his films until recently. Additionally, the other two films in the trilogy sandwiching THE PUPPETMASTER - CITY OF SADNESS (1989) and GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (1995) - require some knowledge of Taiwanese history. The best of these three films, THE PUPPETMASTER is also the most accessible. Centered around a real man, puppet theater performer Li Tien-lu (played by himself and three different actors), it combines documentary and fiction, telling about 40 years of Taiwanese history through his life story.

Houís style is instantly recognizable. In THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, he created an intense claustrophobia by eschewing exteriors, using very long takes and panning very slowly from left to right during every scene.  THE PUPPETMASTER avoids close-ups - if any occur, itís usually because an actor has walked towards the camera - and camera movement. For audiences used to Western conventions of framing and storytelling, many of his decisions are likely to seem perverse: important events take place offscreen, related only by Liís voice-over. To get much out of the film, one has to abandon the desire to understand every image instantly.

For instance, we get to see a shot of his mother praying before a makeshift altar. Li then explains its significance: sheís praying for his grandmother to get better. She did, but his mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died shortly thereafter. All of these emotionally charged events are related quickly and through Liís commentary, rather than images. The year after Liís mother died, his father remarried a former prostitute. She and Li didnít get along, which led him to pursue puppetry. However, he gave all the proceeds from his craft to his father. Only later in life, when he had to take care of his grandmother, was he allowed to keep money he earned.

A bit of background helps put Liís story in context. From 1895 to the end of World War II, Taiwan was a Japanese colony. This is roughly the period  covered by  THE PUPPETMASTER covers, while CITY OF SADNESS focuses on the 40s and GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN centers around a present-day actress making a film about Taiwanese Communists. As with many mainland Chinese films made over the past 15 years, Houís trilogy is suffused with a charge that comes from exploring subjects previously held off-limits. (Taiwan only became a democracy in 1987.) Despite its extremely dense structure, CITY OF SADNESS proved to be a surprise hit in Taiwan, largely for this reason.

THE PUPPETMASTER combines three ďtensesĒ: the past (fictional depictions of Liís life), present (his current reflections on that life) and colorful views of his work as a puppetmaster. Without the latter, it might be unbearably distanced, but these scenes serve effectively as sensual counterpoint. Even with them, Liís  home life often feels as suffocating as the no-exit brothel of THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI. Houís deep-focus compositions are micro-managed to the point where decor threatens to crowd out the characters.  The filmís documentary element is enhanced by Liís on-screen appearances to talk about key events. For instance, a scene of his wife crying, followed by a shot of him hammering in a courtyard, is explained in retrospect as a response to their youngest sonís death.

If the story and images of THE PUPPETMASTER move along in an odd meter, dotted with ellipses, this unusual nature couldnít be more fitting for a nation whose identity crisis continues to this day, when indigenous Taiwanese are questioning the governmentís insistence that Taiwan is part of China. (Hou was the first Taiwanese filmmaker to incorporate the islandís native language, a Chinese dialect thatís nevertheless quite different from the official Mandarin language, into his work.) In the wake of all the acclaim Houís films have recently received, itís tempting to gloss over their strangeness.

That attitude doesnít do them any favors. THE PUPPETMASTER is a rewarding film, but one that requires a great deal of work. Even so, itís a good introduction to Houís world, especially since its Nashville run coincides with the release of several of his films, including GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN and the highly unconventional 1996 gangster film GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE, on VHS . (They become far more accessible with repeat viewings, although his style isnít exactly video-friendly.) Thereís something inspiring about Houís devotion to digging up his nationís history, redeeming the cliché that the personal is political. Itís a shame that his American counterparts rarely offer anything of his caliber when they turn to our countryís history.