My only previous experience with Hou Hsiao-hsien was watching Cikè Niè Yinniang/The Assassin in theaters when it came out, and walking out underwhelmed, though impressed by the visual mastery on display. The Puppetmaster is not as gorgeous (though it should be noted that the copy was less than ideal if generally decent), but Hou's talent for composition is still readily on display, especially in the relatively unfrequent exterior shots.
On a narrative level, this is a simple film: it's a biopic, everyone's favourite genre ! And I won't escape the cliché of calling an "unconventional" biopic, one that - despite being centered on an artist's life, one that I can only presume was considered great at his craft - never really adresses the craft in question (puppeteering, no points for guessing, though opera is also involved) other than by showing it. I'm not familiar enough with Hou to know if this is his typical style, but Hou himself espouses a style that conforms to his subject's art form: static shots, with characters moving in and out of shots, mostly interiors. But the subject himself, whose narration ocassionally informs certain scenes (though generally after they happen, which causes one to first take in the mood of a scene before fully understanding what is actually happening in it) and is even directly interviewed in a few scenes, never talks directly about it, other than in a very practical sense. There's never any monologue about what puppeteering means to Li Tian-lu, or to anyone else for that matter.
There are five puppeteering scenes in the film, which are each shot from different angles, either putting us in the position of a simple spectator, or putting us fully "backstage", or emphasizing the Japanese officials present when Li Tian-lu works for a Japanese propaganda program (oh yeah, this is set during the Japanese occupation of Taïwan in the first half of the XXth century), or Li Tian-lu's inability to complete the performance alone when suffering from malaria.
What Hou seems to be more interested in is capturing Li's life, or more specifically his memories of it. The film has a very episodic structure, essentially seeming to be told directly from Li's perspective: even events he can't remember or simply wasn't present for entirely seem like episodes you'd get if you were to ask an old man to recount his life: things he's been told and has retold before, and things he simply remembers strongly, like going to buy a duck to celebrate his mother's recovery from an illness, while her death is only narrated and not shown. What this creates is a Proustian feeling of childhood memory (or memory in general), driven by details rather than straight narratives... this is, however, significantly undercut by the scenes in which Li directly narrates events to the camera. I'm not sure why Hou included them instead of shooting them as he did other moments, but in any case I found it strongly disrupted the mood set in those other scenes.
In the end I wasn't as impressed as previous reviewers have been, but nonetheless appreciated this a lot more than The Assassin, as a simple depiction of a man's life in an era of occupation, something I haven't really touched on but is certainly felt throughout and informs a lot of both the happenings in Li's life and the significance of a traditional art form like puppeteering (or Chinese opera, in which he also works for a time).
Also my second film by its director (the first being Audition earlier in this round), but I could never have guessed that blind. This is, I suppose, a coming of age film with yakuza elements, centering on a cocky and ambitious yakuza (Kenji) who's saved by Chuji, a half-black (it's implied - or even outright shown but I wasn't 100% sure - he's the son of a prostitute and a GI stationed on Okinawa) who saves him for no other particular reason that he's just a cool dude. Also he plays the harmonica and works at a blues bar, which is the opportunity for some very nice music scenes intercut with yakuza stuff.
I say it's centered on both characters, but it's probably more accurate to say that Chuji is the main character with Kenji supporting, though the Yakuza parts of the film gradually take over the narrative... this is unfortunate, because these scenes almost feel like a parody of the genre. A charitable view would be that the overwhelming immaturity that comes off there (the oversized 90s suits might be a big part of it), of adolescents playing at being adults is replicated in Chuji's storyline, in that he always seems like a chill dude completely underreacting to everything, be it his girlfriend announcing she's pregnant or someone threatening his life... but still, even the more experienced mobsters are pretty ridiculous.
Whatever the case may be, I enjoyed this film quite a bit, both because the actor playing Chuji, though he occasionally seems to overplays his characters nonchalance, has a warm, likable presence and because the music is right up my alley. Miike also goes for a very energetic direction which keeps things moving and helps in not focusing too much on the uneven performances and clichéd writing (the girlfriend character barely qualifying as such for example). Enjoyable, but not particularly remarkable.
Verdict: As you might expect, despite my muted reaction to The Puppetmaster when compared to the first two reviewers (who both called it a masterpiece), I will still pick it over the nice but rather flawed Blues Harp, a film that got here on charm but now faces heavyweights. Not that the gap between the two is that big as far as I'm concerned (half a star on Letterboxd), but still. We'll see what pixote has to say about it in the resurrection bracket.