From the Chicago Reader (July 26, 1996). — J.R.
Like its predecessors, the concluding and entirely self-sufficient feature in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s epic trilogy about the history of Taiwan in the 20th century — a landmark in Taiwanese cinema along with Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day — focuses on a specific period and a specific art form. City of Sadness (1989) covers the end of World War II through the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949 and concentrates on still photography; The Puppet Master (1993) covers the first 36 years (1909-1945) in the life of puppet master Li Tien-lu and showcases his art. This film, whose art form is cinema itself, intercuts material from 1949 to the present. In the present a young film actress preparing to play Chiang Bi-yu — an anti-Japanese guerrilla in 40s China who, along with her husband, was arrested when she returned to Taiwan during the anticommunist “White Terror” of the 50s — is harassed by an anonymous caller who’s stolen her diary and is faxing her pages from it. Images evoked by her diary from her past as a drug-addicted barmaid involved with a gangster alternate with her imaginative projections of the film she’s about to shoot, seen in black and white. The complex, haunting structure suggests three interwoven tenses in the manner of Alain Resnais — present, past, and a curious blend of future conditional and speculative past — yet the film is the trilogy’s most direct as well as the shortest (108 minutes), and the visual mastery is stunning. A long static take showing the barmaid with her gangster boyfriend as she puts on makeup at a mirrored dressing table is one of the most ravishingly beautiful shots I’ve ever seen, with pockets of light in the surrounding room comprising a vast universe of possibilities. Reproaching contemporary Taiwan politically by praising the courage of an earlier generation, this film is controversial in its home country and doesn’t even have a distributor here, but it’s probably the most artistically accomplished new feature I saw in 1995. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, July 27, 4:00 and 6:00, and Tuesday, July 30, 6:00, 443-3737)