A biographical account of a Chinese puppet master whose talents are first used to entertain crowds. He then meets a hooker and the two become actors rather than puppeteers, before he is employed by the opposing Japanese Army to perform puppet shows as a form of propaganda.
Hou Hsiao Hsien's chunk of pre-war Taiwanese life is based on the autobiography of puppetmaster Li Tien Lu, with a voiceover provided by the canny old codger himself. Puppetmaster Li's knack behind the curtain is first noticed by a puppet troupe which "buys" him from his father. Later the sullen, laconic Li (Lin Chung) hitches up with a hooker and switches to acting when Chinese culture is crossed off the menu, hangs out in the mountains and is then recruited as a propaganda puppeteer by the occupying Japanese military.
Amid the titbits of activity the movie just about illustrates a life with no control. However, the tragedies that might have touched us the death of close relatives, the abuse meted out by Li's stepmother (Yang Li-Yin), a nasty dose of malaria occur almost always in long-shot. The shadow of Japanisation looms there's an order for pigtails to be lopped off and a reprimand to Li's son for catching an uncatchable fish but the disjointed narrative structure leaves no indelible feeling of what it must have meant to have your strings jiggled by a foreign power.
Stubbornly sluggish and as serious as a final-term dissertation, the drama is lightened by snatches of vaguely bawdy deadpan humour in the beret-bonced octogenarian's direct-to-camera anecdotes, and it is left to the glimpses of puppetry to provide the film's few infusions of colour and energy.
For all that Chinese epics often are pretty serious films, they can still keep elements of humour, sadly this isn't one of them. The permanently gloomy film features impressive acting but will a tedious plot that begins to drag by the end, it's not enough to make it a rewarding experience.