Puppet master of martial arts thrills locals

'Sacred' tops $1 mil as unique storytelling is embraced

HUWEI — In an age of computer-generated dinosaurs and talking mice, a hand puppet hardly seems an obvious candidate for B.O. success.

Yet Pili Intl. Multimedia Co. has turned its signature puppet, the chivalrous martial arts master Shih Yeh-wen, into a star with his own feature-length pic, TV serials, merchandising deals and fan clubs, where devotees debate the latest plot twists.

“This kind of storytelling is unique to Taiwan,” says Pili topper Chris Huang. “But we’ve tried to make it even more accessible to as broad an audience as possible.”

Huang himself is a third-generation puppeteer. While he no longer does the day-to-day puppeteering, he still oversees story development and sits at the head of an empire that includes a production company, a cable TV network and a marketing arm.

Pili’s first bigscreen effort, 2000’s “The Legend of the Sacred Stone,” broke the $1 million mark domestically, setting a record at that time as the highest-grossing locally produced pic. Huang hopes to shoot a followup early next year, and sees nothing but continued success for Shih Yen-wen.

“We can compete with Hollywood films because we’ve modernized our puppets,” Huang says. “At the same time, we’ve remained true to the spirit of puppet theater.”

Like other traditional Chinese performance arts, hand-puppet theater has rigorous guidelines. Huang readily admits to breaking these, but maintains he hasn’t changed the essence of the art.

“We made the puppets bigger and more lifelike,” Huang explains. “The costumes are no longer specific to one period. But it’s still all about emotions and creating a world that viewers can dive into.”

The puppets themselves look more like oversized action figures than something you slip over your hand. Pili has come a long way since Senor Wences. Their creations vary in size depending on the action required of them; most stand a full 2 feet tall and can weigh as much as 6 pounds — and that’s not including all the accessories and weaponry they sport.

While they have limited facial expression and body articulation, the puppets feature moving lips, glass eyeballs and even individual eyelashes. Fully adorned, the puppets cover not just the operator’s hand but the entire arm as well.

With craft and pure artistry, puppeteers manipulate these ungainly creations through a series of spectacular action set-pieces. The onscreen results are a blur of kinetic energy, but behind-the-scenes shooting is tedious by any standard. A day usually involves a group of puppeteers — sometimes as many as a dozen — standing in T-shirts, shorts and sandals, choreographing the movements of the puppets over and over again.

Pili does everything inhouse, from lensing to post-production special effects. Vincent Huang, topper Chris’s brother, voices all the characters, male, female and monster alike. The feat has earned him the martial arts-like title “Eight Tone Genius.”

Once all the elements are in place, a typical adventure sees Shih Yen-wen dispatch a half-dozen opponents at once while working his way through a complicated plot. Favorite themes include honor, justice and heroism.

For the uninitiated, watching these puppets in action can be a mind-boggling and oftentimes befuddling experience. Imagine “Kill Bill” on fast-forward and in the Taiwanese dialect, but acted by puppets.

“International audiences aren’t familiar with this style of storytelling,” Huang concedes. “And it can be intimidating — but the stories we tell are universal.”

In Taiwan and across Asia, Shih Yen-wen’s appeal cuts across demographics. Huang estimates adolescent boys make up more than half of the core audience, but says young girls also like discussing the various fashions the characters wear. And it’s certainly older fans who visit one smoky bar in Taipei that screens nothing but Shih’s adventures on its bigscreen TV.

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