* Review: Tsai Ming-Liang’s “Face” is kind of mesmerizing

Best movies from the World Film Festival of Bangkok

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Still from Tsai Ming-Liang’s “Face”

Perhaps I’ve undergone a conversion experience. “Face” (aka “Visage”) is a long 140 minutes but may be Tsai Ming-Liang’s most beautiful, accessible movie to date. Granted, I’d only seen two before this one: “What Time Is It There?” and the one with the watermelon. Perhaps once you have seen a few of the Taiwanese director’s movies, his signature motifs reverberate: holes, tunnels, stairways and long, bare, lonely corridors. Vicious plumbing. Two characters wordlessly trying to communicate. Very long shots of a human walking (usually laboring) toward the camera from a great distance along a dingy tiled corridor.

The opening scene is vintage Tsai: actor Lee Kang-sheng turns on a kitchen faucet and the water blows out like a geyser. He struggles to quell it with a bucket. Meanwhile, water from the pipe under the sink explodes. In the next scene, he slogs knee-deep down a flooded hallway to a room where a pregnant woman lies in bed. Presumably this is the character’s wife; Lee, playing a movie director, is off to France to make a film, leaving plenty of loose ends and burst pipes on the home front.

Before the film began, Tsai was introduced along with Lee, his customary leading man. Tsai made a few remarks in Mandarin that smoothed the way for me: “It’s a film on film. In film there’s always a director. It takes place in France.” That no doubt sounds anodyne since Tsai’s movies constantly remind you of the cliché about film being a director’s medium; the actors could be just about anybody. They don’t have to be particularly good actors. Model Laetitia Casta was probably cast here because of her limited expressive abilities.

Exercises in frustration

To put it another way: in “Face,” Tsai is trying to convey the cumbersome, collaborative, intimate, creative process. A director can only convey his desires to actors by metaphors and indirection, and so those are the only ways he can communicate the process to viewers. I’m not sure how the musical interludes fit in.

Aspiring filmmakers must study Tsai’s individual scenes very closely. For example, consider another item in the niggling frustration gallery: a character is hacking away at what must be a super-frosted refrigerator freezer. As with the water faucet, we never get a glimpse of the extent of the problem. We just feel the character’s frustration and this way of framing exaggerates the effect.

There are also many beautiful delicious images. While I don’t know about the snow, the picture above is from a scene set in a real forest adorned with strategically placed mirrors. Imagine it with just a few people and no goofy costumes.

The Louvre and Taipei

The film was French-financed and most of it is set in France. In fact, many scenes take place in shadowy non-public parts of the Louvre, which provided some of the funding.

But Taipei is the setting for another absorbing still shot. The camera must be perched high up on the exterior ledge of a hotel. The color is monochromic, early morning city light. The lower, left quadrant of the frame is filled by the intersecting glass walls of a hotel room. Inside, unseen, the director’s French producer (Fanny Ardant) is jabbering on the phone. In the remainder of the frame, highways and looping ramps form a symmetrical pattern as the sound of vehicles hum in the background.

The director character is back in Taipei for his mother’s funeral. Not that this is explained. There’s very, very little dialogue in the film, in French or Mandarin. (I can’t recall if it’s subtitled in Thai, but there are English sub-titles for all festival films with soundtracks other than English).

Chinese spirits

However, there’s a kitchen scene with fruit and other offerings on a table beneath a woman’s photograph. The fish tank alone would tell you this is a Chinese home. Then the old woman ambles down the gloomy stairway out of the apartment: her spirit is leaving the home. The very next scene shows Lee, water up to his chest, wading through a dark tunnel, lit incense sticks in hand. It turns out, I think, that he’s back in France making his movie but the transition is made by joining a similar mood.

Members of the audience who left early—within the first 100 minutes or so—won’t know why descriptions of “Face” refer to the Louvre and the Biblical Salomé legend. Around this point, it’s revealed that Jean-Pierre Léaud, looking very old and seedy, is playing Herod. Shortly after that, in very Tsai fashion, the actor crawls from a baseboard outlet beneath a famous painting of Salomé in a Louvre gallery.

I don’t feel too wimpy for sneaking out to catch one of the last trains before midnight. I wasn’t the first escapee by a long shot. Tsai himself had warned that the movie was 140 minutes long and said that he didn’t think that he or Lee would be available for questions at the end. I don’t think we were going to see John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Or a triumphant completion of the film within the film. Can’t think who would even play John the Baptist.

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