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Tsai Ming-liang on ‘Your Face,’ the Cinematic Power of Close-Ups, and Teaming with Ryuichi Sakamoto

Written by on September 8, 2018 

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Renowned Taiwan-based filmmaker and Venice mainstay Tsai Ming-liang returns to the Lido this year with his latest, uncategorizable offering Your Face. Premiering out of competition in the non-fiction section, the 76-minute picture consists of unbroken close-up shots of 13 unidentified, seemingly unrelated people, including Mr. Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng.

In signature Tsai style, the camera calmly, unquestioningly observes its subjects, some of which share stranger-than-fiction life stories, others appear deep in unknowable thought while still others simply doze off. Without the aid of title cards or voice-overs, the viewer is left to arrive at their own conclusion about what they’ve witnessed.

It’s our third encounter with Mr. Tsai on Lido following 2015 for the doc-narrative hybrid That Afternoon and 2017 for the VR-trip The Deserted.

Could you talk about the initial idea for Your Face? What made you to want to do a film in this particular way?

When I was making the VR film, one thing I could never get used to was I had to do without close-ups. For me close-up is part of the aesthetics of cinema. You lose that in VR, which gave me the desire to do it. These days when I start a project it’s less and less about achieving certain objectives. If I feel like doing something, I’ll just do it. Kind of like the way I write. Obviously there’s a whole process to filmmaking. But I try to simplify that process and then it wouldn’t seem so hard. By not focusing on a plot, for example, that already makes it simpler.

In this case, a cosmetics company approached me by chance and asked me to do something for their new product in China. I told them I don’t know how to do commercials but then it occurred to me to ask them whether they’d give me some money to do my project, which can carry their name to serve promotional purposes. I told them I wanted to make a film of close-ups and, being a cosmetics company, they thought it’s a good idea and said yes.

Of course what I shot might be the opposite of what they had in mind, as it only featured people who didn’t use any cosmetics. But they were happy with the result nonetheless.

What’s the appeal of close-ups to you?

With close-ups you not only see, you see clearly. And for me close-ups are about the human face, and they should be seen on a theater screen. There are many films you remember for their close-up shots. Sometimes you forgot about what happens in a film but would still remember the actors’ faces in them. So after the VR experience, I thought: well, this is certainly a form of cinema, but it has lost some of cinema’s charms too. Like I said earlier, this inspired my desire to make this film.

I’ve always approached filmmaking based on my own desire. The fact that I want to keep shooting Lee Kang-sheng is also a desire. That’s what motivates me to make films, not for business reasons or I’ve been moved by some story. Many people believe that cinema has run out of places to go but that’s not true. There are still many possibilities to be explored.

Where are how did you find the subjects?  

I like looking at people’s faces in the streets. Some faces appeal to me immediately but there’s nothing I can do but to see them go again. After a while, you realize you can always find that one face in the crowd that you particularly like to look at. It could be a stranger’s face, or a face not conventionally considered to be pretty, which, incidentally, often has to do with age, or time.

As for the subjects of this film, I knew I would shoot Lee Kang-sheng, otherwise I had no one in mind. So my cinematographer and I just started looking in the streets, it took us more than two months. We went pretty far, but ultimately the subjects were mostly from Taipei. We also looked outside of Taipei, among fishermen and factory workers. Our focus was on what the faces made us feel. Eventually we came back to the city though, because logistically it’s just easier. We would be excited to find one or two faces on a day, but then you still had to convince them to be part of this project.

I talked a lot with my cinematographer, a young guy who was shooting for me for the first time. Gradually he came up with a few criteria of the kind of faces that would draw my attention. People who are still working, who are not having an easy life, and not people who just idle around. But ultimately it was still a very instinctive process.

So none of these 13 subjects knew each other?

Except for Lee Kang-sheng and his mother and another father-son duo, none of them knew anyone else.

How did you make the non-actors appear so relaxed and open on camera?

The biggest challenge for me was not how to get their appearance right, but how to get them to be in front of the camera at all. To convince them to come to the studio, sometimes that means to convince their family. In one case the old lady didn’t want to be shot, saying she’s old and ugly. It was her son who convinced her to do it. None of them knew exactly what I was going to do but I felt there was some respect and trust for me on their part.

That was the hard part. Even on the day of the shoot you get worried whether they would show up. But once they’re there, sitting on the chair in front of my camera, I think what you get is what you get. I didn’t care if they felt uncomfortable, I just shot and didn’t ask them to do anything specific. That said, I think time also plays a part. You let them sit there long enough, it just became a natural state to them. So even if they were being curious, looking around or trying to suppress their discomfort, that’s also their natural state.

So you didn’t direct them at all?

I only gave two instructions. Let’s chat for the first half-hour, about whatever you like. The second half-hour I asked them to simply be shot by me, like in a photo studio. No talking but otherwise they could do whatever they wanted. Some of them fell asleep. So I didn’t really give any directions per se.

I guess there was no overall theme then when you approached the project?

Not at all. It was impossible. It was just about looking at these faces.

How much footage did you shoot?

We shot each of them for one hour.

And you only shot these 13 people we see in the film?

There were two others that I eventually did not include in the film.

What was the editing process like?

It was hard. The reason is that every one of them was exciting. So you had to decide what kind of film this should be. I hate to have my films categorized, in terms of being narrative features or documentaries. I’ve always asked, why such categorization? In my mind there should only be the distinction between feature and short films. I feel that I have to persuade others of my view each time around.

Take The Afternoon as an example, why does it have to be a documentary? You can just as well call it a narrative feature. Knowing that people like to put labels on things, I always try not to let that happen with my films. So I kept reminding myself to make something that would not fit any such preconceived labels.

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Did you end up with different cuts?

We had three, four different cuts. It kept getting shorter. But it was an organic process. You have to see how the film plays, in terms of fluency, power, such considerations.

You seldom use music in your films. Can you talk about why you made an exception here?

This film could also be music-free. But it just worked out that way. Last year when I was in Venice for my VR film, I met Ryuichi Sakamoto on the beach. We first met four, five years ago when he was on the Venice jury and Stray Dogs competed, but only briefly back then. He only told me his whole family loved my films, especially his kids. But I never imagined collaborating with him. You know it’s always risky when you ask someone to collaborate on a project. What if you don’t like what they come up with? But I’ve always liked Ryuichi’s work. I know his approach to music has changed a lot over the years. But even when he worked on commercial pictures, they tend to be the good ones, like The Last Emperor. It really surprises you that he came up with such a score for a Chinese-themed movie.

So I asked myself whether it would work to have his music for this film. I wrote him and he agreed right away. I sent over the film and after one month he sent back 12 compositions. I didn’t know what to expect and was particularly afraid he would do something too… “melodic” because my films do not go well with explicit musical cues. But when I heard what he sent over I was blown away, it was like he knew exactly what I was thinking. We didn’t talk about it at all. I did not ask for his opinion either when I placed the music in the film. He wrote in his email that I was free to choose not to use any of it. That it was completely up to me. He really is a nice, generous person. I feel like at this stage in our lives, collaborating with each other is a purely pleasant experience. And I ended up using almost everything he wrote. That process was exciting too, because you don’t know what he was thinking when he wrote these pieces. They were not put in chronological order. But I finished it very quickly.

Obviously I broke some of my own rules by using music but I think it adds a sense of presentness to the film. When you watch it, it’s like Ryuichi himself is conducting the pieces right next to you. In that sense it’s less than a score to a film than a performance of imagery and sound.

Do you have plans to make another … “conventional” narrative feature?

I do have some ideas for a … how should I put it, a film that would more easily be included in a competition lineup! All jokes aside, I do think I’m changing the way people think about these things, especially here at the Venice Film Festival. Obviously people tend to play by the rules of the mainstream, but mainstream can be guided.

So as a filmmaker, you don’t approach narrative features, documentaries or VR films any differently?

No. My only hope is to do something different. Something that not everybody is doing.

Your Face premiered at Venice 2018.

Follow our Venice 2018 coverage.


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