Monday, October 3, 2011

Reduced Light - on Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppet Master)


die deutsche Version finden sie hier

by Hou Hsiao Hsien) 

"The saddest things are separations and cases of death" 
Li Tien Lu 

An old man goes clumsy downstairs and looses his balance. While the camera remains motionless, you hear from outside of the frame his cries of pain, which becomes almost a whimper. Gradually everything disappears in a long fade out. While we are still hearing the whimpers, a soft and melancholic guitar music appears, which continues itself until the next shot: a green landscape in the daylight in that we see a carriage driving in the background. A pressing away of the last picture, like we try to distract ourselves from a sad memory to go to a more comfortable one. 

Touching and sometimes uncanny are the long fade outs. The darkness outside of the frame, between the single sequences appears like the nowhere land between that what has being and the things we are still able to remember. Every picture has a touch of mortality like the episodes in which the old actor is remembering himself. The seeming under-lighted pictures evoke in every fade out the feeling that something disappears forever. The dependence of the picture from the light is like the dependence of the memory from the physical function of the body. Hou is not simply illustrating the story of Li Tien Lu. He redefines his memories with the possibilities of cinema. The human memory does not work like a plot. It is non-perfect with holes and is built from single episodes without a visible plot. The utopia of the cinematograph as a memory of the men in this century, even if it is older than the cinema - maybe even older than pyramids and the tombstones of the past. 

Persons are often hardly visible as silhouettes. The weak light of lanterns, a red poster in the background which magnetize our view. Sometimes, the picture is narrowed through walls and entrances. In some scenes, the visible action of a person is reduced of the space of a door frame. A woman who cries at the deathbed of her husband, a sick man in the left part of the picture - hardly visible. This pictures are looking like old photographs where its chemistry is already in the process of decay; eyes which grope very hardly like a hopeless gesture of the holding on of the men and the things which will disappear into the nothing. I think about museums, where paintings are saved through reduced light against the decay or in pyramids in which everything will be die and turn into dust if it is opened and floodes by oxygene. It seems, that you could destroy with one torch a whole screening of Hsimeng Rensheng.

Often we see scenes of puppet plays. After a while you can see as well the hands which lead the puppets and the human mouths which talk for them. In this sequences we find a track of the basic attitude of the whole film. Li Tien Lu tells about episodes which are not shown in the film. The ruling hands of Hou hsiao Hsien, you can find in the emphasized isolation of single scenes and in the use of music. More than in A City of Sadness, Hou separate here the single elements of the film like a slowly circulating laterna magica which betray the secret of its own magic like the hands of the puppet players. During one theater performance you see the heads of the audience as silhouettes. Just the stage in the background is in bright light. A strange picture as like you see a film from the position of the projectors cabin. When Francois Truffaut still was a film critic, he believed that a good film must have a vision of the world as well as a vision of the cinema. I like this idea and it helps me to overcome very easy the cultural distance to Taiwan. Even if its just for a film by Hou hsiao Hsien. 

in a strange laconic manner appear Li tien Lus stories from the off with his own voice or in the documentary sequences. It sounds different than the mood of Hous reconstructed scenes. It seems that Li Tien Lu has less problems with the mortality of men and things or the loss of those who are not existing anymore, than the director. The break between fiction and document is transparent. Now there is nothing left anymore from the illusion of the film as a illustration of the life in the different episodes; just chimeres between Memory and imagination. The happiest moments are when the old actor and (in and outside Taiwan's) famous puppet player Li Tien Lu sits in front of the camera while telling his stories. In one sequence after recitating a long story, the old man clear himself, drinks something and looks for some seconds in the camera. Hsimeng Rensheng deals with two possibilities to love a person. The one is the wish to collect the stories of which his life is built; the other is just the realizing of his physical presence. That are also two possibilities of cinematographic poetry, the one of the imagination and the absolute confidence in the men and things like they are. 


The art of transition: The rite of cinema, the titles at the beginning and the credits at the end, to the first or from the last image. The points opening and closing of a film are for Hou Hsiao Hsien almost always poetic reflections between the earthy reality of the film theatre in you are sitting in and the imagined reality of the film. The last pictures: Wrecks of airplanes in a green landscape. Under the monotone sound of people knocking and taking apart the airplanes which are left by the Japanese after the second world war because of its important metals. Than there is again the guitar music. Like an eternity the camera seems to be fixed on this image, that (like the music) begins to be preserved for our memory. Finally the picture of the green landscape begins heartbreaking gradually disappearing in the darkness of the fade out which is followed by the credits: white signs on black background. Credits that remind me in a funeral; the elegiac end of a film which seems to be the end of the world. Hous films are representing a cinema of modesty and severity. Just in the first and last moments the films are celebrating themselves: This films and especially Hsimeng Rensheng have all reasons to do so. 

Rdiger Tomczak

(filmwrts, Hannover, Nr. 30, December 1993)

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