It's difficult to know how to approach a film as strange and shocking as The River--Tsai Ming-liang's third feature… I want to start by labeling it a masterpiece, but in cases such as this that assertion seems more a gamble than a certainty, however much I'd prefer to pretend otherwise.
How to explain my lack of confidence? First of all, when encountering something as peculiar as The River, my first impulse isn't to assert anything but to ask, "What the hell is this?"…
That I regard The River as a masterpiece and the work of a master doesn't mean that I consider it fun or pleasant--terrifying and beautiful would be more appropriate. It's been a subject of dispute ever since it won the special jury prize in Berlin in 1997, and I can't exactly quarrel with those who complain that it's sick or boring; I can understand how one could have these responses, even though I don't share them
It’s been more than ten years since Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote these words, and not much has changed. ‘Face’ isn’t instilled with the same sense of foreboding doom as ‘The River’ or ‘The Hole’, nor the apocalyptic ‘The Wayward Cloud’, although it is not quite as gentle as 'Goodbye Dragon Inn' or ‘What Time is it There?’. But the same deadpan comedy laced with melancholic nostalgia that links all of his films is alive and well, superbly realized in what might be his most simple, understatedly beautiful film to date. To praise the film’s surfaces is neither a back handed compliment (resonance usually come later for Tsai’s films, after contemplation and further viewings), nor to suggest a lack of depth (ditto).
There have always been intimations of cinephilia in Tsai, in a way not as common to say, Hou or Yang. With ‘Face’, Tsai dives into the behind-the-scenes-of-a-film-shoot film, aligning himself to Fassbinder’s ‘Beware of a Holy Whore’, Godard’s ‘Contempt’, Assayas’ ‘Irma Vep’ and especially Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’. Tsai’s Truaffaut love has popped up before, complete with Jean-Pierre Leaud cameos, and while ‘Face’ is not full blown homage, it is a full fledged love letter/eulogy. Truffaut regular Fanny Ardant is the put upon production manager trying to manage quirky, antsy leading man Leaud, young ingénue Latetia Casta, and director Lee Kang-Sheng, who doesn’t speak a word of French. I hasten to add that even this minimal amount of plot is divulged slowly and elliptically, with Tsai’s penchant for long scenes that only reveal their meanings towards the end of their duration, or when coupled retroactively with forthcoming scenes. Both the film’s proponents and detractors have mentioned its sketchy nature, consisting of a series of moments strung together. It’s hard to disagree, although I would add that there is a cumulative effect of recurring motifs; Leaud’s attempts at communing with nature, first with a deer, then with a small bird (leading to as unique a funeral scene as one is ever likely to see); an emphasis on close ups of faces that encompasses three different long scenes of Casta putting black tape over windows and mirrors, and which eventually leads to her seduction of Lee’s translator in near pitch black; Ardant traversing various terrains in high heels, over dressed and clearly ill-equipped to deal with various pressures; the death of Lee’s mother and her ghost subsequently hanging out, keeping an eye on things. What holds it all together is Tsai’s mastery of the match cut, which effortlessly segues us from scene to scene, along with his seemingly innate ability to time out a scene. As always, time is of the essence in Tsai.
Visually speaking: one of the film’s most striking tableau comes late, with a camera mounted outside of a high rise building, its depth of field capturing both Fanny Ardent on a bed inside her hotel room, as well as a labyrinthine system of freeways below, with a sparse cityscape visible in the distant background. Tsai has been building to this moment in several ways – the extreme distances involved within the shot contrast his consistent emphasis on faces in close up, and the bustling traffic is visually and architecturally opposed to a general stillness that pervades the rest of the film. We hear Ardent on the phone discussing an actress who is refusing to play a role, an actress we at first assume to be Casta, although later scenes do not confirm this. As Ardent sarcastically proposes to simply play the role herself, we realize that the soundtrack is not in synch with the image - as the dialogue continues, Ardent approaches the window, revealing that she is neither holding a phone nor moving her lips. The past tense invades the present (the clarity of the window rhymes nicely with those scenes involving Casta blackening out any and all reflective surface – someone who does not want to be gazed upon, fearful either of her own reflection or of what other people might see).
If my good friend and fellow Tsai enthusiast Ignatius is correct, and the film is Tsai's sketchbook (including the blank pages), it is important to qualify that term, blank. Empty spaces are always monumental in Tsai – while directors like Denis or Mann use negative space within the frame to isolate characters and reflect certain emotional states, Tsai’s space is always charged with a sense of the potential; even in stillness there is a kinetic possibility. Face might be a simple compendium of specific personal obsessions on Tsai’s part (might being the operative term, since I’m not convinced that there isn’t more to it) – even so, there are few places I would rather roam around in than Tsai’s mind.