'Your Face' ('Ni de lian'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Utter simplicity speaks worlds.

Taiwan filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang in minimalist mode reflects on aging and reality in a contemplation of 12 faces.

It’s not hard to observe the effects of aging on human faces, but what is the meaning behind those deep lines, pockets, wrinkles and discolorations? What stories do they tell or hide? What reality do they reflect? In Your Face (Ni de lian), Taiwanese filmmaker and conceptual artist Tsai Ming-liang advances another inexorable step on his cinematic journey, like the Buddhist monk walking in slow motion through Marseilles in his Journey to the West.

Minimalist in feeling and design, it is not a film for superficial or faint-hearted audiences, but primarily for Tsai’s festival followers. This round he eliminates still more surplus information, stripping away even the background from large close-ups of 12 ordinary aging human faces. Each is presented in a single shot taken from a single angle. The viewer gets a chance to examine the individuality of each one at length, as it is held onscreen for several long minutes.

When compared to the similarly titled Face, his labored 2009 Francophone feature shot for the Louvre and starring a clutch of famous actors, the Zen-like simplicity of Your Face stands out. The emphasis here is on the concrete reality of craggy, weather-beaten mugs that look lived-in and expressive. Time has clearly passed over these faces and sculpted them like wind-blasted stone. 

With the stoicism of a patient sitting in a dentist’s chair, the obviously uncomfortable subjects stare in the direction they have been told, trying hard not to move. But as the minutes tick on, their embarrassed expressions give way to a smile and maybe a short exchange with the off-camera director. Some are silent, almost motionless; other subjects talk or fall sleep; one chatters away with tales from her married life and a man confesses his ruinous obsession with pachinko.

The final face is the youngest and belongs to Tsai’s actor and alter ego Lee Kang-sheng, who appears in all his films. A relaxed professional, he laughs and recalls his past, his days as a student and his father.

But this is not the end. The film wraps on the long-held shot of an empty ballroom, perhaps the film set itself. Nothing moves, nothing speaks. Yet the sense of time is still there, not so much in the architectural space itself as in the absence of human beings, who one might think have been and gone.

Beyond its contemplation of human aging, Your Face can also be seen as a reflection on cinema and reality. “It’s funny but the camera makes everything different,” notes one of the director's subjects, and indeed the result of staring at an almost motionless face on the big screen for five minutes is to perceive the landscape of features as something rich and strange, at several removes from everyday "reality."

Although silence is the preferred soundtrack in Your Face, there is a landmark here: For the first time in 20-odd years, Tsai has made use of music. Written by well-known Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, whom the director met on the beach in Venice, the charming East-West blend of music accompanies the parade of faces very, very gently, making them much easier to watch.
 
Production company: Homegreen Filma
Director, screenwriter: Tsai Ming-liang
Producer: Claude Wang 
Director of photography: Ian Ku
Editor: Chang Jhong-yuan
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
World sales: Homegreen Films
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
76 minutes