A documentary featuring Taiwanese master of hand puppetry Chen Hsi-huang (陳錫煌) premiered in Tokyo on Friday, ahead of its nationwide release in Japan later this month.
Red Box (紅盒子), by Taiwanese director Yang Li-chou (楊力州), tells the story of 88-year-old Chen, a descendent of a famous Taiwanese theater family, who has become a national treasure because of his mastery of the traditional art.
On a promotional tour in Japan this week, Yang said the documentary was a kind of sequel to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) 1993 film The Puppetmaster (戲夢人生), which profiled Chen’s father, Li Tien-lu (李天祿).
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.
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 when 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, he realized that “at its heart, it was a film about passing on a legacy and an art form,” Yand said.
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 (田都元帥), a traditional god of the theater, Yang said.
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.
Along with the focus on Chen’s family background and his rise to fame, Red Box also documents his efforts to pass on budaixi to younger generations.
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 preserve the extraordinary legacy of budaixi.
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