Documentary director Yang Li-chou’s (楊力州) latest film, Father (紅盒子), has in the past couple of weeks been the nation’s highest-grossing film. Given its subject matter, this suggests that the public still wants to preserve traditional culture.
The film tells the life story of Chen Hsi-huang (陳錫煌), budaixi puppet theater master Li Tien-lu’s (李天祿) eldest son, who died in 1998.
It emphasizes the emotional attachment between father and son, and the efforts they have made to pass on the folk art.
The director spent 10 years making the film, which records the glorious heyday of budaixi, as well as its tearful decline.
Budaixi is a part of older people’s memories. Once a thriving art, it was suppressed by past governments and it gradually became marginalized.
A former ban on the use of Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) is another reason for the art’s decline.
The ghost of the party-state apparatus, which prevailed under martial law, still haunts Taiwan, and many younger people who do not speak Hoklo, or do not speak it well, are losing touch with their cultural roots.
The Ministry of Culture in 2009 recognized Chen as a preserver of important national traditional arts in the field of puppetry.
Growing up with his father, Chen was immersed in the world of puppetry and developed a strong emotional connection with it.
There was a time when he wanted to get away from it, but eventually he became strongly bonded with the traditional art.
Chen researched the craft of making puppets and building sets, as well as the performance art itself, with the aim of preserving the distinctly Taiwanese cultural tradition.
Yang’s lively narration gives viewers a window into Chen’s inner world while expressing the difficulties that face Hoklo, as the monologues and dialogues of budaixi come close to being lost forever.
Language is a tool that nations rely on for survival. It is an essential medium for conveying a nation’s culture. A native verbal art form will only feel genuine if it is performed in the native language.
In the film, Chen and the director emphasize the importance of Hoklo.
Taiwanese have been suppressed too long and too deeply, to the point where many of them no longer feel connected with their original mother tongue.
Budaixi can only be passed on if everyone cares enough about it.
The provision of Hoklo-language public TV stations is equally important. Taiwan’s cultural policies must provide more and better resources.
Taiwanese must cherish the few remaining artists, who are seen as national treasures, so that the knowledge they have gleaned throughout their lives can be taught in full to those willing to learn.
The mastery of budaixi starts from childhood — this is another message that the documentary tries to convey.
To pass the art of budaixi on to the next generation, the first task is to have more people speaking Hoklo, and speaking more of it.
With sufficient determination and the right policies, this rich and beautiful cultural craft can become a shining landmark of Taiwan in the sea of human civilization.
Liu Wei-ting is a university instructor.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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