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Your Face: Transformation and ‘Tragedy in Anatomy’ in the Work of Tsai Ming-liang

Lee Kang-sheng in 'Your Face' (Tsai Ming-lian, 2018)


In 2013, upon the release of his film Stray Dogs, Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang announced that he and his art would be departing commercial cinema. It was a decision furnished in part by his personal life, as the intensive nature of feature film production was aggravating an unspecified illness. But the main catalyst was systematic: a response to the current configuration of the film industry, which, worldwide and in this decade, has shrunk the number of opportunities to finance low to mid-budget filmmaking, leaving artists like Tsai in the lurch. Since 2012 then, Tsai’s moving image work has left what was once a relatively stable home in cinema for a nomadic existence in art galleries, in virtual reality, on network backed live streams and on the big screen still but confined to the festival circuit. Looking at this multiplicity of mediums, the increasingly wide and diverse range of funding that he benefits from and his open refusal of the established hierarchy that prizes features over shorts, it would be appropriate to say that Tsai has drifted into more experimental phase of his thirty plus year career. Though this is not just limited to a polygamous approach to his metier but also encompasses his increasingly complicated relationship to narrative itself. Something that he has never been particularly beholden to but alongside and post Stray Dogs, in the middle ground between fiction and documentary he currently occupies, it has gained if not a new precedence then a new place and shape through the collision of approaches to representing his worldview that he has long practiced with elements less determinable.

Your Face

This is particularly true of Your Face. At 76 minutes it is among the longest of his recent works and unlike his installations, intended to be viewed for that duration in keeping with its concept, which Tsai himself has openly stated is the summoning of the innate storytelling qualities of the human face. The close-up as a uniquely cinematic device and source of drama. Its bedrock is once again that hodgepodge of funding bodies, with the most important support coming from the Zhongzhan Hall, a historic building in Taipei which commissioned and fully funded a short from Tsai—called Light (2018)—and for this film provided its main room for his staging of thirteen close-ups of thirteen different faces. One shot, of varying length, per face. The 13th and so the last of them, should be easily recognisable, for it belongs to Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng. Lee’s presence led to the inclusion of his mother, the third face, though it is a filial connection that only becomes explicit when the credits roll, and you can literally put names to faces. Revealed in hindsight then, it puts a cap on and qualifies concerns surrounding filial duty that are voiced throughout the film and sewn into the fabric of Tsai’s entire body of work. In Your Face’s case, it gets configured into questions surrounding how a child’s obligation to their parents becomes more pronounced when the former is older and more capable, and the latter has reached infirmity and is approaching death.

Lee’s Mother in Your Face (Tsai Ming-liang, 2018)

These eventualities have become more prominent in his work, as Tsai has openly acknowledged that he’s been thinking about death more and more, now that he has reached the age of 61 and is confronted with the burden of his own health issues along with a stroke Lee Kang-sheng suffered in 2014. It’s no wonder then that age guided the selection process for the remaining eleven faces—which all belong to unknowns, acting wise, and unrelated to Tsai or any of his previous collaborators. Their inclusion began during a three month long pre-production period spent scouting on the streets of Taipei with important criteria in tow, such as that the faces must be ‘interesting’ and that the person, for ethics sake, must be sound of mind and able to withstand the duress of the shoot. But the ultimate stipulation was their relatively advanced age; even the youngest faces are well into, or getting past, their mid-life with the majority being over sixty. Tsai clearly wanted to emphasize the physicality of that older group in particular because each face was shot in two takes, one where they are silent and another where they can talk, from which Tsai would later pick one and pare it down. The results are that in the final cut the oldest faces, the most weatherworn, get the lion’s share of the silent takes, where all intrusive and extrusive forms of narrative are removed. (The film already has no voiceover or captions and Tsai, who is unusually present and chatty for the younger faces, is silent when the oldest are on screen.) With the clouds cleared, a person’s personality will flow naturally from their faces, putting into a practice, in isolated, experimental conditions, a significant slice of the theory that is this journal’s namesake, as expressed by its creator, Jean Epstein, in an essay like ‘Magnification’ (1921), his paean to the power of the close-up:

Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. Something is being decided. A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds. The orography of the face vacillates. Seismic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them away. Crescendo. A muscle bridles. The lip is laced with tics like a theatre curtain. Everything is movement, imbalance, crisis.

But this being a Tsai Ming-liang film, he’s not only interested in how individual, minute, movements offer up drama but more specifically in the ‘imbalance’, ‘crisis’ and ‘tragedy in anatomy’ that is the atrophy which is part and parcel of getting older. How these faces tell of a life lived and an interiority coping with the wear and tear that it, now with the end in sight, has accumulated. It’s not a subject that is often the object of an extended gaze, in movies or in life, given that most societies consider it too gauche or existentially challenging to look long and hard at the face of person who is at the end of their narrative, so to speak. In presenting these elderly men and women in a vacuum where an audience can do nothing but to study their wrinkles, blemishes, liver spots and moles that have proliferated as the years march on, the film becomes an incitement to ponder the sheer amount of time passed that these details signify, as well as how the little ticks, bum shuffles and the struggle, for two of the faces, to even keep conscious tell the toll that this temporal weight exacts on an individual and how a significant portion of their expressiveness is dedicated to revealing the discomfort inflicted.

Though the discomfort is not only coming from their end. The act of filming induces its fair share, as seen most transparently in an older woman, the second face, who has a crooked neck. In a Q&A following the screening I attended, Tsai said she was extremely suspicious of the idea of being looked at for so long, to the extent that she had to be convinced by her family not to back out of the project at the last minute. You can see this reluctance it in the way she sits frozen in a state of barely suppressed panic. This discomfort comes from the contention at the heart of the film, arising between the face being filmed and a violability that festers naturally from being in such unnatural position for a long period of time on the one hand, and the cinematic apparatus on the other, which in its rigidity is closed off for interaction from the subject. It’s even raised a mere few minutes in when the first face states, with a mix of mild alarm and bemusement, that she finds the whole process of just sitting there starting at the lens strange. This is not an unforeseen but then accepted side effect of the film’s structure and aims, but something that was sought out and so coded into the process. During the production, authorship was partitioned between Tsai and the faces, with him and his team choosing the framing, which is always static, and meticulously designing the lighting, which is a variable but always expressive combination of front and side lighting that is less about making them look like movie stars than about emphasizing their features, including what may be deemed as unsightly. Within these parameters, apart from that very broad condition of not talking in one take and talking in the other, each face could do whatever they want. But intended or not, it feels like after a couple of minutes of each of these silent takes, and through their abundance, the film runs aground as a study of discomfort. For the signs get repetitive and there is a sense that the close-up as way of gleaning someone’s inner drama is being overridden by the agitation instilled from outside by the camera.

The second ‘face’ in Your Face (Tsai Ming-liang, 2018)

The film gets over this hitch and manages to combine both goals—to tell these people’s stories through their face and to raise and examine the potential friction between the camera, or filmmaker, and the subject—when people can talk. The results are images, implied, that feel like they could have been the products of Tsai’s own imagination and specifically his unwavering devotion to depicting routine torpor and bodily decline, such as how Lee’s mother spends the time assuaging her various ailments by vigorously licking her lips, swivelling her neck and massaging her nose and scalp. Little tips and tricks that she explains are meant extend one’s life yet in doing them, and her insistence that this is required for older people, only serve to remind us not of the body’s extension but its finitude. Others, mostly a couple of the younger faces, when prodded by Tsai to tell the story of their lives suggest entire sequences. For example, the fifth face, a middle-aged woman who’s self-employed, working in the marketing of beauty products, tells of how she got over losing her first love by gorging on the contents of her fridge. An act of emotional exorcism that is akin to Tsai and his characters’ tendency to imbibe foodstuff with otherwise unmanageable desires or grief and then sexualize or eviscerate them. Whether they are watermelons in Vive L’Amour (1994) and The Wayward Cloud (2005) or in the case of Stray Dogs, a cabbage called Miss Big Boobs. Or then there’s a middle-aged man, the seventh face, who tells of how his marriage was curtailed by an addiction to pachinko machines housed in busy and bright arcades which dot the landscape of Tsai’s first feature, Rebels Of The Neon God (1992). Yet this emphasis on story—which as I have said has been side-lined for much of his career—and the freedom granted to the subjects to tell their own, on the whole leads to friction between Tsai’s sensibilities and their viewpoints. Like for example, the fourth face, the beautician. Her lifestyle, or even her entire ‘life journey’ as Tsai himself puts it, is alien to the vast majority of characters that haunt Tsai’s images, for she tells it as an individualist’s rise to the top that started with a cloistered and conservative upbringing in the countryside, a failed marriage and financial woes before it reaches the present where through her own effort, guile and a few risks she has become independent and comfortably wealthy. She is a far sight from the most prominent example of a pink-collar worker in Tsai’s oeuvre: Yang Kuei-mei’s May Lin, the real estate agent in Vive L’Amour (1994). Both women are sales people but, contrary to the beautician’s experience, for May the job is a drudgery with no upward mobility on the horizon. Her only recourse, when her sex life seems to offer no relief, is to give herself a few minutes to exercise her despair by weeping through the final shot of the film. Tsai acknowledges this dissonance, between the fifth face and the experiences he is usually interested in giving flesh, when his response seems to be to try and steer the conversation into ending on a more melancholy note. As he counters her assertions that she is happy with who she is now and how things have turned out by insisting that she keeps talking and suggests recounting “something interesting… difficult or sad…,” which leads to the story about her midnight trip to the fridge. Which then she manages again to turn into something more positive, as another marker on the map of her development.

The fourth ‘face’ in Your Face (Tsai Ming-liang, 2018)

The Walker Series and Fiction/Non-Fiction Blurred

Despite this soft attempt at devil’s advocacy, Tsai is not out to avoid or tamp down these irregularities but rather to encourage them, given that they are inevitable when the environment is controlled and he has complete sovereignty behind the camera and in the cutting room, while the lens is fixed on an autonomous actor, or rather non-actor. These conditions differ greatly from those that determined his fiction, in which the performances that end up being projected as part of the finished film, though generally developed from rudimentary scripts that were subject to change in accordance to Lee and the other actors’ constitutions and personal lives, are ultimately the results of precise direction. A quality that still is present in his work from the last few years but now, like in Your Face, he purposely intermingles it with these unaccountable elements. The Walker series (2012- ) is exemplary of this. An on-going group of films that started short but have gotten increasingly long. (The latest and eighth entry Sand (2018) not only debuted in the same year as Your Face but comes in at roughly the same runtime.) They originated as a theatre piece, inspired by the pilgrimage of the eighth century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, whom Tsai has plucked out of the past and set loose not just in the present but in the real world. Each film is set in a different location, usually a city, for example Hong Kong in Walker (2012) or Tokyo in Sleep No Sleep (2015), wherein Lee Kang-sheng, garbed in red robes with his head down and shaved, traverses the streets and back alleys, turning short distances vast through the art of slow walking. The films, especially those set in the more densely populated spots, work through extreme contrast. Between their status as works of fiction and as documentaries for one, while the other contrast is the sight and presence of this extra-ordinary figure, an anachronism stuck in a stylised pose and at a speed whose extreme slowness is antithetical to the capital driven, materialist societies in which he finds himself and the other human beings on screen. In Walker (2012), pedestrians are usually seen moving around ‘The Monk’ en-masse with the occasional individual or cluster breaking away to stop and wonder at this strange figure. Though only momentarily, because they must return to the fold to keep up with the rat race that is living in a conurbation, a pre-condition for urban alienation. The process of watching one of these films is one of getting so accustomed to Lee’s monk, through him being the only constant and the sheer length of the few shots that make up these films, that it ends up making his peculiar existence and way of navigating in the world seem orthodox and the ‘documentary’ elements uncanny. In Walker, when put up against The Monk, the anxious, hurried rhythms of the city, it’s constant stream of pedestrians, traffics and accompanying nodes of light and noise all coming from nowhere (off-frame) and then progressing back to nowhere again, seem inhuman or even mechanical. For despite being the aberration, and a walking symbol free of psychology, The Monk in all of these films that I’ve seen—that’s four out of eight—is always flesh and blood, which is emphasized by Tsai alternating long shots of him walking with close-ups of his essentials: his head, his hands and feet.

Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, 2012)

Not all of these films are CBD-bound. One of the odd ones out is Walking On Water, a segment from a multi-directed anthology called Letters From The South (2013), whose connective tissue is the experiences of the Chinese diaspora. A vast collection of people into which Tsai was born, as he grew up in an ethnically Chinese family in Kuling, Malaysia, in an apartment building which he has Lee’s monk walk rings around in the segment. It is a leafy residential block, during a bright and sleepy afternoon, and so a milieu that moves at a speed closer to The Monk’s. A site where he can be relieved of his status as an anchor and turn from the observed to an alien observer as he witnesses the humdrum lives of this building’s occupants through the windows and blinds of every apartment he passes. Tsai often places his camera inside these spaces to show them in detail, constructing a string of little documentary vignettes, featuring such moments like a bunch of overstimulated kids running riot; a father, half-conscious, sitting in front of the TV channel surfing; and a mother, caught in a moment of idle repose, gazing out the window. All the while, The Monk, who was once front and centre, is now frequently reduced to a crimson blur in the distance, moving past a window less like a person, or even anything concrete, than a band of reflected light; now as one with the ambience as his brethren dappled on the foliage outside or the fluctuations in natural light that mark the Zhongshan Hall, now depopulated, in the final shot of Your Face.

Walking on Water (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)

Walking On Water and its string of narratives, separated by apartment walls into discrete, little pocket dimensions, is a precursor to the contained but proliferate jumble of oral histories that make up Your Face. Both feel like new ways of exploring what Tsai has always been interested in, the details and tenor of underserved existences and their responses—whether it is become inert or act out—to the disappointments, the repression and the rot of daily life. That he has turned his camera more to the real world in order illustrate all of this is by now established, but Your Face’s didacticism, its focus on the telling of stories in a body of work where being tongue-tied is more characteristic, is not a fluke either. Sandwiched in between the two films is Afternoon (2015), his longest film since Stray Dogs. It features Tsai and Lee, detailing their lives as co-collaborators and cohabitants and how the latter is a seed for so much of their work, not as a dramatization or just through observation but in the shape of a two hour and twenty-minute conversation.

When thinking about Tsai’s body of work on the whole, these films in part feel like a return to the cradle. To his pre-cinema, narrative heavy days, where the early life of someone like the beautician was realized in the form of social realist dramas, both films and miniseries, that he wrote and directed for television. The most readily available title from this part of his career, which stretches from 1985 to 1995, is the film All The Corners Of The World (1989), which fields a Mizoguchi-like plot involving a girl who sells her body in order to keep her family of ticket scalpers afloat. Tsai has talked about this era as one initially of relief, that he wouldn’t have to make light entertainment and instead could make films about ‘real’ people. But then frustration followed, over the constraints that mainstream television placed on him. For watching the aforementioned film, with foreknowledge of what Tsai’s later work would be like, is a strange experience. Not only in its use of handheld cinematography and melodramatic acting styles, but also in how any attempt to appreciate the characters’ day-to-day is curtailed by the event heavy plot or the frequent breaks to commercials.

His shift to cinema then was a welcomed chance to marginalize what he felt was blocking his path to truth. The prioritisation of story in a harmfully reductive configuration could be side-lined in the context of cinema. His interests however did not change dramatically upon discovering the greater freedom of directing for the big screen. The cruxes of All The Corners Of The World, a dysfunctional family unit and the dehumanization of wage slavery, have been constants in his work ever since. Lee Kang-sheng as Hsiao-kang, has worked in multiple occupations across all of the films, and the fraught and complex relationship he has with his parents, played by Lu Hsiao-ling and Miao Tien, has also been carried along, film to film.

This is to say that both Your Face and Walking On Water don’t feel radical in that they present a total shift away from what came before, but rather their newfound ways of finding and depicting Tsai’s bedbugs shows his rare malleability. A highly conceptual and fictional piece about a monk working in concert with an observational documentary about a Kuling apartment block, or an experimental study in the power of a particular technique that also dredges up a swath of Taiwanese life without capitulating to the tenets of mainstream documentary filmmaking, would not have been possible to make commercially, even in the context of a limited release in arthouse cinemas, where a clear separation between fiction and non-fiction still, for the most part, rule. Both films then are the spawn of him working around tectonic shifts in his art, of his ability to continue, uncompromised, to plumb the depths of his worlds even if that means muddling their previously establish physics. Something though that he himself has said he finds not daunting but freeing, as he has stated, in response to cinema’s on-going identity crisis, “At times like these, don’t you feel like cinema has been liberated?”