Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. 124 mins.
Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)
The third collaboration between Teshigahara and novelist Kôbô Abe is yet another absorbing, beautiful rumination on what it means to be an individual and his/her place (or lack thereof) in a modernizing world. While Woman in the Dunes is the most focused of the bunch and certainly deserving of the praise it receives, Face might be my favorite of the three.
I’ll have to spend some more letting the trilogy bounce about in my brain, but as a big fan of science fiction, I gobbled up the futurist speculation and Frankenstein-esque fiddling with the supposed “natural order” of things. The doctor’s laboratory is a beautifully constructed set and lends itself to dozens of amazing shots throughout the film.
Like Woman in the Dunes, Face is very much concerned with the way in which the individual both loses and acquires freedom when in isolation. Whereas the protagonist in Woman in the Dunes was a prisoner in the desert, contrained by both men and the elements, the protagonist in Faces experiences a social isolation following a horrific facial disfigurement. While he is still walking the same streets from before his injury, his identity is diminished and possibly extinguished altogether. While we often find it so easy to throw around greeting-card pleasantries such as “Beauty is only skin deep; what really counts is what’s on the inside,” we tend to ignore the reality that our superficial features and the responses they provoke from our peers has a profound effect on who we are on the inside.
The protagonist deals with such a conflict as his new face begins to change his behavior. Don’t worry, the face doesn’t have a mind of its own or anything hokey like that. It does, however, provide the protagonist a measure of anonymity and a clean moral slate. He has no friends or enemies, assets or debts, and any action he takes can be attributed only to a man who, technically speaking, does not exist. More mainstream films of recent years have tackled such themes (such as Raimi’s Darkman, Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, and Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In), but Face digs far deeper.
Just as interesting as the protagonist’s story is the speculation of his doctor, the inventor of his new face. The doctor envisions a world of universal anonymity in which everyone lives the protagonist’s experience simultaneously. Trust, suspicion, and reputation would lose all meaning, the doctor envisions, as would the substance of compliments and insults. After all, why would you care what other people think if you know nothing about them? It’s too bad that neither Teshigahara nor Abe lived to see developments such as Reddit, Xbox Live and especially 4Chan – such networks emulate much of the Doctor’s thought experiments, and the results range from amazing to terrifying to head-scratching.
The film does have its problems. The subplot with the girl and his brother doesn’t add to the film (unless I’m seriously misreading it) and could just as well have been left on the cutting-room floor. Also, people with less patience for high-concept science fiction may think the movie feels too close to being an extended Twilight Zone episode. Nonetheless, I thought the movie overall was near excellent and a must see for TeshigahAbe (power couple!) fans.
– Like Woman in the Dunes, Face also features a rowboat idling in the sand. Huh.
(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-01)