by Sam C. Mac Film

Your Face | Tsai Ming-liang

October 22, 2018

These days, Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang seems deeply interested in the tiny variations of approach available to him in presenting the images of his subjects within the film frame. Tsai‘s latest in a string of recent avant-garde works, Your Face, is at its most compelling when it focuses intently on the dialectical relationship between the things the filmmaker controls (lighting, camera angle, soundtrack, the cut) and the things that he does not (his subjects’ voluntary and involuntary movements, the pace of their breathing, the expressions that ephemerally flash across their faces, and their choice of when and when not to speak). In the passages of his film in which the camera is trained on close-ups of unspeaking faces, Tsai essentially abandons tenets of film-making and allows his role to become purely that of the camera, in its most fundamental sense: capturing images, but not directing them.

This observational mode forces an engagement with the subjects’ responses to the camera first, and the filmmaker’s aesthetic choices second. Almost paradoxically, it’s when these faces start speaking that they actually lose some agency — because then they become more traditional documentary subjects, performing for, or responding to, the behest of the director. Tsai‘s film does not abide by the same formal rigor as, say, Abbas Kiaraostami’s Shirin, in which the captured images of women’s faces are entirely defined by their relationship to the cinema screen that they’re watching. The faces here deliver long soliloquies about their life, laugh uncomfortably, give exercise instructions, one even plays harmonica for a little bit. It’s a peculiar experiment — especially the final shot, which features no faces at all, but rather shows the visage of the space in which, presumably, Tsai shot his close-up testimonials. At its best, Your Face introduces a sense of humane, observational intimacy to the filmmaker’s post-narrative project.

Published as part of New York Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 2.