Show Me Your Original Face: On Tsai Ming-liang’s Your Faceby Sadie Rebecca Starnes
The glacial pacing of Tsai Ming-liang’s films often induces a hypnagogic state in his audience. Teetering between dream and reality, his work meditates on the tension between personal fantasy and public space. Tsai’s characteristic stillness—predicated on long takes, short on narrative plot and even dialogue—removes us from contemporary experience, even as he asks us to more closely observe it. Framed in phone booths, freeways and supermarkets, a Tsai film gazes with moist, unblinking eyes at everyday life—the slightest glint directing us towards the curiosities that line it.
His latest film, Your Face, introduces us to thirteen unidentified, largely working class people pulled from the streets of Taipei. Created in direct response to his previous project, the VR experiment The Deserted (2017), the subjects of this film are lit frankly and presented by way of a series of close-ups—an aesthetic choice impossible to the VR medium. Appearing onscreen for five to six minutes each, many of these people seem like the preliminary study of a typical Tsai character—pensive if slightly bored, sensitive to time, memory and illusion. Having filmed each for an hour without direction, he allows them to waver between quiet discomfort and sleep, nervous chatter and even tearful confession. Many of the subjects remain silent, however, as they gaze off-camera, directly at and even beyond us, towards another time and place.
Every subject of Your Face is middle-aged or elderly, causing the audience to consider time’s favored physical medium: the human face. The weathered features of each person convey a story, whether or not their owners mean to do so themselves. The forlorn gaze of an elderly woman, for instance, her rouged mouth slackening above a pearl necklace, speaks terrific volumes over the silence. A man’s statuesque cheekbones takes the lighting beautifully as he sleeps, while another vacillates between defiance and apology as he stares directly into the camera. Within this concentrated frame, one is easily transfixed by the details (indeed, I emphatically sketched each of theses faces directly into my notes, as if in a life drawing class). The smallest glance, smirk, or gesture tells us of one’s insecurities, playful spirit, and often sorrow.
The film is not only silent observation, however. Six minutes into the first portrait, Tsai’s subject—a women with an endearing half-smile and restless eyes—speaks to her experience of being filmed: “It feels strange and intriguing.” Upon this apt summation of Your Face as a whole, we also hear the first pulse of the film’s minimalist score, arranged by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Tsai almost never uses non-diegetic music in his films, yet the punctuation of Sakamoto’s spare bells and drones—so much like brooding cicadae—accent each person’s presence with discretion, amplifying the churn of thoughts behind each pair of eyes.
Other women in this film speak liberally, often with surprising candor, of their hardships and regrets: moving to the city, failed marriages, poverty and tireless work. A charming (if a bit eccentric) elderly woman, as she repeatedly licks her lips, passes the time with facial and tongue exercises. “Old folks need to exercise their tongues,” she tells us in a gravelly voice, so they don’t “get tongue-tied.” In stark contrast, the eight men of this film are mostly silent as they stare or sleep; exceptions include a rather defeated Pachinko addict, nostalgic for his first love, and an elderly harmonica player with beautiful hands. The latter’s deeply folded face, clearly enraptured as he plays, tears up between songs.
The last face is that of Tsai’s long-time muse and collaborator, Lee Kang-sheng. The Léaud to his Truffaut, Lee is this director’s most thorough study—a face we have watched subtly age through every one of Tsai’s films since 1989. By far the most closely filmed in this series, Lee gazes towards us with an actor’s ease, speaking at length about his family between spells of thoughtful pause. “My mother thinks I resemble my dad more . . . [she] often tells people that my father looked like me when he was younger” he reminisces, reminding me of the old kōan: Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents were born. Such riddles, rather like Tsai’s pictures, have neither solution nor meaning—they’re simply frames for rumination, a space for mental quietude. In the last line of the film, Lee reflects, “. . . but I'm no longer young myself.”
In the final scene of Your Face, we watch several minutes pass within an empty ballroom. As the late afternoon light fades in and out, tickling the chandeliers, Sakamoto’s score exhales into the expanse, augmenting it. Tsai often uses architecture to mirror the psyche, and this dim hall gradually evokes a last portrait, restless and reflective. We’re left here alone for quite a while—just long enough to slow time, and us with it.
ContributorSadie Rebecca Starnes
SADIE REBECCA STARNES is an artist and writer from North Carolina. Now based in Brooklyn, she has held a number of solo exhibitions between NY and her former home of Tokyo.