Monday, July 20, 2015

Fantasia ’15: Arti: the Adventure Begins

These puppets can kick the snot out of the Muppets and those annoying Spitting Image tools.  They have mad martial arts skills and they are not even as dramatically wooden as a lot of flesh and blood actors. Creations of the Huangs, Taiwan’s leading puppetry family, they are the undeniable stars of Huang Wen Chang’s fantastical wuxia steampunk epic, Arti: the Adventure Begins (trailer here), which had its North American premiere at the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Sometime during the height of the Silk Road’s geopolitical importance, the wise Zhang Meng invented a wooden mechanical robot known as ARTI-C. Unfortunately, his promethean creation was used to stoke fear and paranoia. In a resulting riot, Zhang was killed, but his son Zhang Mo and his daughter Zhang Tong survived to preserve his legacy: ARTI-C.

However, ARTI-C is powered by a dwindling reserve of a mystic energy called the Origin. It is sort of like the “Force,” but more colorful and tangible. To keep ARTI-C in proper fighting condition, they must find a way to recharge his Origin cell. That quest will take them to the Nouveau Riche city of Loulan, which is currently locked in a cold war with the Lop Tribe and the Dune-like sandworms that apparently do their bidding. Unfortunately, when Zhang Tong is spirited away by the Elvish Lop people, she quickly surmises the shadowy Loulan regent has badly misrepresented the nature of the conflict to her gullible brother.

The mind-blowing truth is some of the best cinematic martial arts produced this year is performed by puppets. Some of their moves are just awesome. Yet, it is important to remember the greater artistry they represent. There is nothing campy about the figures Huang and his team bring to life on screen. Dispel any thoughts of Gerry Anderson’s marionettes. Aside from the occasional comic relief provided by Cheeky Ducky, the film’s only wholly animated character, Huang’s characters are entirely serious and their wuxia business is pretty darned spectacular and suitably tragic.

Granted, the story is just sort of okay, but the sets and backdrops are richly detailed and utterly lifelike. If ever a film with puppets deserved to win awards for best costuming, it would be Arti, hands down. This is incredible world building—literally built to scale.

It is gratifying to know Chinese puppetry traditions not only continue and move forward in Taiwan, thanks to artists like the Huangs. Reportedly, Arti is the most expensive pure puppetry film ever produced—and it is easy to believe it based on what is up there on the screen. Very highly recommended for fans of wuxia and puppet theater, Arti: the Adventure Begins is such an accomplished work of craftsmanship it must be destined for a long festival life and a devoted cult following, after its recent Fantasia premiere. Look for it, hope for it.