A documentary starring Taiwanese hand puppet master Chen Hsi-huang (陳錫煌) premiered in Tokyo on Friday, ahead of its domestic release in Japan later this month.
Red Box (紅 盒子), by Taiwanese director Yang Li-chou (楊 力 州), tells the story of Chen, 88, a descendant of a famous Taiwanese theater family, who became a national treasure for his mastery of traditional art.
During a promotional tour of Japan this week, Yang said the documentary was sort of a sequel to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) 1993 film The Puppetmaster (戲夢人生), which featured 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 them to use different last names – and explores the uncertain future of traditional arts in the modern world.
In an interview in Tokyo earlier this week, Yang said it took 10 years to create Red Box, and it took three to four years to discover its central theme.
This happened on a day when he asked Chen about his famous father, who died more than 20 years ago, 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 was silent for about 30 seconds,” Yang said. “I then asked him what he would like to say to his son, and he replied that he had nothing to say.”
At that point, he realized that “this was basically a film about passing on a heritage and an art form,” Yand said.
Chen’s father, Li, married a famous theater family in 1930, and out of respect for their social status, Li agreed to let his eldest son take his wife’s last name.
At that time, such an arrangement must have been a lasting disgrace for Li, creating a rift in his relationship with his son, which would have become even more complicated when Chen began to learn the family trade, Yang said.
In the absence of a strong relationship with his father, Chen devoted himself 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 title of the documentary, Yang said.
The Red Box also accompanied Chen on his path to mastering the genre and eventual recognition by the Ministry of Culture as “curator 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 Budaixi down to younger generations.
According to Yang, none of Chen’s students were able to make a living on Budaixi, and one even washed cars to make ends meet.
“The idea of an heir to such an important legacy washing cars for a living seemed like a stain on Taiwanese society, but it made me document it even more,” Yang said.
With Red Box’s imminent release in Japan, Yang said, he hopes it will educate the international public about one of Taiwan’s cultural treasures and, along with The Puppetmaster, help preserve the extraordinary legacy of budaixi.
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