The act of looking is an oddly intimate experience, which is perhaps why it becomes so uncomfortable to be looked at. The 13 souls who brave the camera for director Tsai Ming-Liang’s Your Face (你的臉, Nǐ de Liǎn) have all, obviously, given their consent to to become a subject for contemplation and are fully aware of being observed but still suffer the self-conscious embarrassment of being on show. That embarrassment is perhaps the point, pointing to a different kind of truth than the one we might have thought ourselves to be looking for but it’s also true that the camera becomes a kind of veil shielding us from our own anxiety safe in the knowledge that we can look all we please because we will never be seen.
Tsai’s subjects, aside from one or two, are mostly elderly residents of Taipei spotted by chance in the street and selected for their interesting faces. These faces, perhaps in contrast to those most often seen in cinema, are lined and worn. They wear their stories rather than tell them. Tsai gave few instructions, solely asking for an hour of time – 30 minutes spent in silence and 30 in conversation. The results are varied. Old men fall asleep, one plays a harmonica, a woman boils her life philosophy down to a love of making money, and a man laments a life wasted on pachinko and romantic disappointment.
Flickers of a smile erupt around a woman’s lips until she can’t contain her amusement any longer, finally breaking into a laugh in noting the strange incongruity of her position. It all looks so different on the screen than it looks at the scene. Tsai shoots in the same location as his earlier short Light, Zhongshan Hall – a public auditorium completed in 1936 when Taiwan was under Japanese rule (and therefore coincidentally close in age to many of Tsai’s subjects), but from different angles which almost obscure a sense of space until the hall itself gains its own portrait in the final shot, empty of life but somehow no longer passive.
Tsai encourages us to look deeply into the faces of others in manner which would be inappropriate in any other context. Yet the faces themselves react to Tsai’s camera and the people standing behind it. They do not and cannot react to us, except in an abstract sense, while we lurk behind a two way mirror protecting our own fragile senses of self from the same kind of scrutiny. Yet there is a kind of commonality in the way in which those on each side of the screen reach a point of mutual vacancy during which something else begins to emerge. The subjects fall into a kind of reverie, be it a literal sleep or motion towards activity such that of as one lady who decides to show off some of her “exercises” designed to stave off the effects of old age.
Those moments of activity, however, in breaking the stillness rupture the sense of contemplation in simply beholding an unfamiliar face. The ordinary had become uncanny, but now we have other concerns, narrative concerns with which to engage on an intellectual rather than instinctive level. On hearing the story, we forget about the face and concentrate on words while also forgetting that these stories are not really being told to us but to whoever is behind the camera and that the subject may also have lost consciousness of the camera itself while concentrating on relating their truth.
Then again, Tsai rejects the medium of documentary and we have only our own assumption that what we’re told is authentic and offered in the natural feeling of the moment. This is particularly true of the final subject who happens to be Tsai’s longterm muse Lee Kang-sheng (whose mother also appears in the film). Lee too muses on his family history, offering a meta comment on his face and its transitory likeness to that of his father, lamenting that though they say Lee’s father looked like him when he was young Lee knows that in “reality” he no longer is. Tsai’s camera turns its lens on ageing, on changes superficial and spiritual while remaining rooted to the spot as if fighting for an impossible objectivity. Closing in an empty room, Tsai nevertheless finds the light and the soul in the stonework as if to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t faces that were so important after all.
Your Face screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.
Festival trailer (English captions)