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BUCHEON, South Korea — Loving too much or not loving enough is the root of all grief in Makeup, a capricious, stylistically indefinable film that revolves around a cadaver-cosmetician’s probe into her lesbian lover’s death. Like a schoolgirl trying on different dresses for prom night, director Lien Yi-Chi and writer Lin Tien-Kuei slips in and out of genres, letting the film vacillate between ghost story, detective mystery, lyrical lesbian romance and lurid amour fou. Despite his hesitant directorial voice, Lien displays considerable subtlety in characterization, investing his beautifully brittle protagonists with soul and psychological complexity.
The picture has a lush, haunting quality that might enthrall a youthful, semi-artsy audience in its Taiwan home market. Prospects for niche release in Asia and smaller especially gay-themed festivals are fairly bright.
Min-Hsiu (Nikki Hsieh) is an introverted mortuary cosmetician. More at home with the dead than with the living, she feigns oblivion to the silent infatuation of her manager Chih-ren and the shenanigans of her feisty apprentice Hsiao-Ching. The morgue is shot and lit evocatively to elicit a brooding, enigmatic backdrop for Lien’s melancholy portrait of one who caresses the touch and smell of death and grief like a lover. In flights of magic realism, ghosts of the deceased appear to console her (instead of the other way round).
However, anyone who assumes that Makeupis trying to mimic Departures couldn’t be more misled. Min-Hsiu receives a “customer” who happens to be her high school music teacher Chen Ting (Sonia Sui). According to Chen’s disconsolate husband Dr Nieh Cheng-fu (Matt Wu), she committed suicide. Min-Hsiu’s sorrow and disbelief at Chen’s death are aggravated by Detective Kuo Yung-ming (Ray Chang), who stalks her for forensic information. Kuo is convinced that Nieh, who was Chen’s psychiatrist, is implicated in her death.
From this point on, the style drifts towards noir, as Nieh, Kuo, Chen, Min-Hsiu and even Nieh’s secretary have something to hide about their identities or their pasts. Yet the chameleon script changes course again upon a visit to the country school where Chen and Min-Hsiu first met. Shot in a cloud of soft focus and serenaded by Schumann impromptus, flashbacks to their school days are so different in theme and aesthetic that they are like a bonus track or a film-within-a-film.
Eventually, the technical reason for Chen’s death, which comes nearly as an anti-climax in the final scene, doesn’t matter as much as the root cause of her meltdown. Kuo’s initial suspicions and Nieh’s desire to know more about Chen’s past are actually just leads to uncover the film’s core secret: the love between Min-Hsiu and Chen, and how its forfeiture has a devastating effect it has on their lives.
With this revelation, Min-Hsiu’ anti-social behavior hits one with greater poignancy as a sign of her spiritual death. It is no coincidence that her mother, who plays a part in their breakup, is in a long coma, rendering her as non-communicative as the bodies at the morgue.
Hsieh’s versatile performance – nuanced as the repressed adult Min-Hsiu, and more demonstrative as the misty-eyed, vivacious teenager – help bridge the transition between time and discordant styles. The gamine Sui has total rapport with Hsieh. Ravishing and impassioned, she convincingly portrays how loving as deeply as her character does can just as easily transcend or destroy. There is less depth to the acting and development of the male roles but their volatile and controlling personalities project a different kind of neurosis to offset the female protagonists’ hypersensitivity.
Production values are chic for a small quasi-art-house film, especially the set design and color schemes, which alter dramatically to mirror the protagonists shifting moods.
Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
Production company: JA Productions Inc.
Cast: Nikki Hsieh, Sonia Sui, Matt Wu, Ray Chang.
Director: Lin Yi-Chi.
Screenwriter: Yu Shang-Min.
Producer: Lin Tien-Kuei.
Executive producer: Jackie Wang.
Director of photography: Randy Che.
Production designer: Megan Lin.
Music: Jeffery Cheng.
Editor: Hsiao-Yun Ku.
Sales: Good Films Workshop
No rating, 107 minutes.
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