Documentary about Taiwanese puppetry master premieres in Japan
"Red Box," by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsian, tells the story of 88-year-old Chen, a descendent of a famous Taiwanese theater family, who has achieved national treasure status on the basis of his mastery of the traditional art.
On a promotional tour in Japan this week, filmmaker Yang Li-chou said the documentary was a kind of sequel to Hou's 1993 film "The Puppetmaster," which profiled Chen's father Li Tien-lu.
According to Yang, "Red Box" delves into the complicated father-son relationship between the two artists, including the circumstances that led to them using different surnames, and explores the uncertain future of traditional arts in the modern world.
Despite the success of "Red Box" since its release in Taiwan in October 2018, Yang said, he was skeptical when a prominent Japanese film company expressed interest in the documentary.
"At first, I wondered how much money they were going to lose," Yang said. "I was thinking this is an art film, it's not going to fill the seats."
In the end, he said, the studio convinced him that the film would be well-received, not only because of Japanese's deep respect for traditional arts and crafts, but also on the basis of its poignant depiction of Chen's distant relationship with his father, which would resonate with many older viewers.
Yang said that his doubts lifted on Nov. 7, when he received a call from a reporter who had attended an advance screening of the film. The reporter sounded very emotional, and he said the first thing he did after watching the documentary was call his father, Yang related.
Fathers and sons
In an interview in Tokyo earlier in the week, Yang said "Red Box" took 10 years to make, and he was three to four years into it before he discovered its central theme.
That came about one day after he asked Chen about his famous father, who had passed away more than 20 years before, Yang said.
"I asked him what he would like to say to his father, and he looked at the camera and said, 'thank you,' then he went silent for about 30 seconds," Yang said. "I then asked him what he would like to say to his son, and he told me there was nothing he wanted to say."
At that moment, Yang said, he realized that "at its heart, it was a film about passing on a legacy and an art form."
Chen's father Li married into a celebrated theater family in 1930, and in deference to their social standing, Li agreed to let his firstborn son take his wife's surname.
At that time, such an arrangement must have been a lasting shame for Li, creating a fissure in his relationship with his son, which would have become even more complicated when Chen began learning the family trade, Yang said.
In the absence of a strong relationship with his father, Chen became devoted to Tiandou yuanshuai, a traditional god of the theater, according to Yang.
On performance tours, Chen carried a statue of the god in a red box, which inspired the documentary's title, Yang said. The red box also accompanied Chen on his road to mastery of the genre and eventual recognition by the Ministry of Culture as a "preserver of the important cultural art of glove puppetry (budaixi)," Yang said.
The next generation
Along with the focus on Chen's family background and his rise to fame, "Red Box" also documents his efforts to pass on the budaixi art form to younger generations.
The film highlights three of Chen's students -- a performer named A-chang, an academic who specializes in budaixi, and a young French woman named Lucy.
The question of who, metaphorically, will inherit the "Red Box" becomes an important theme in the film, but it leads to some dispiriting conclusions, Yang said.
According to Yang, none of Chen's students were able to make a living from budaixi, and one was even washing cars to make ends meet.
"The idea of an heir to such an important legacy washing cars for a living seemed like stain on Taiwanese society, but it gave me even greater incentive to document it," Yang said.
With the impending release of "Red Box" in Japan, Yang said, he hopes it will inform international audiences about one of Taiwan's cultural treasures and, along with "The Puppetmaster," will help ensure the extraordinary legacy of budaixi.