《掌中》Turn By Turn We Turn
The life/soul of a puppet lies in the palm (and fingers) of the puppeteer (掌中), and when the hands are gone, as the ending scenes says, 艺术没有了艺术家，就不过是一堆破木烂布 (an art, without the artist, will just become a pile of useless wood and rags). And so is the significance of the “chopping of hands”, I believe.
In this tale about Li Bo Yuan, the chief puppeteer, his story is traced by the tale of Sun Wukong (the Monkey God), of which he performs, possibly his favourite character and alter-ego. If you’re familiar with the tale of 《西游记》 (Journey to the West) and Sun Wukong, Tze Chien has masterfully weaved these 2 characters (Bo Yuan & Sun Wukong) seamlessly together in portraying the ups & downs of Bo Yuan as troupe master. Just like Wukong, bursting out of the rock, Bo Yuan had started off, impetuous and reckless, full of 憧憬. Just as Wukong wanted to protect his kingdom, Bo Yuan wanted to protect his troupe and in this way, made decisions that might have seemed treacherous, just for the troupe’s survival. And like how Wukong was subdued and placed under confinement, Bo Yuan decided to let his disciple take over, and let his passion rest and take care of his family. However, the opportunity arose for him to live his passion again, to make a comeback like how Wukong was released from being trapped under a rock with a new mission, coincidentally, a journey to the west. A true master of the art, Bo Yuan lived and breathed it and, at the end of his life, he completes the journey, having done what he could do for the art, though with some regrets, and is released from bondage, just as he and the “souls” of the puppets 升天.
I think this relation was one of the strongest points in the production, not to mention the spell-binding puppetry display of the scenes from 西游记. I’ve always been fascinated by puppets and indeed, when the show is on, no one looks at what goes under (or above for some) as they are focused on what’s happening on the stage. As the opening lines (unspoken) goes, no one bothers actually, for the audience only wants to be entertained. Sad isn’t it? For the struggles and sacrifices of these artists go unnoticed, or misunderstood. But the sweet thing in the story was that Bo Yuan had a wife that supported and understood him all the way. 所为“人生难得一知己,千古知音最难觅”.
However, unlike the immortality of Sun Wukong, humans are not eternal, and without anyone to pass this on to, it will get lost. But then again, immortality of the art (or even legends) will only last if there was someone to tell it. What struck me was the irony of how the troupe survived numerous political upheavals, including the Cultural Revolution, but yet it failed to survive the the modern world of capitalism and commercialism, even bureacracy, only to face the fate of possibly collecting dust in the museum where the true ‘soul’ of the art is buried or thrown away (“丢掉、丢掉!”)
But at least we get to witness it here now, thanks to The Finger Players and their efforts to try to bring it back into awareness under the tutelage of Li Bo Fen and Li Yi Xin. Only a few days left to watch it. Grab your tickets now!