Funny, touching, enthralling, horrifying, and finally heartbreaking, Face is precisely the kind of movie I love most to encounter and then tell others about. No category will encompass it succinctly; it’s an original. One critic called it the greatest Japanese film of the last decade or more, and it’s not hard to see why. It tells a story of great ambition in such a modest, careful, understated—and often hilarious—way that its greatest shocks and most powerful moments sneak up on you from behind and stay with you for a long time.
I wonder if some of Face’s sheer bite and sassy vigor comes from the fact that it’s based, however loosely, on a true story: a bar hostess murdered a co-worker, fled, and hid out for years on end before finally being caught. But that seems unfair to director Junji Sakamoto and his lead performer, a stage actress named Naomi Fujiyama. Sakamoto brings a strange combination of quirky black humor and blunt pathos to this story, and Fujiyama’s performance is so unaffected and natural that we forget a camera is watching.
Fujiyama plays Masako, the secluded, ugly-duckling daughter of a woman who runs a dry-cleaning shop. Her life consists of endless days up in her room, running her pedal-powered sewing machine and doing nothing much else in particular. Her father absconded years ago with another woman, and her sneering sister—who’s as slender and poised as Masako is pudgy and plain—has a rich boyfriend and a classy bar-girl lifestyle. At one point after being taunted, Masako hops a train and vanishes for most of a day. Her mother’s response to this is to admit that it’s good for the girl to get out more.
Then Mom drops dead, and Masako shreds what’s left of her life. She strangles her sister, steals the funerary money, dresses in a suit of clothes lifted from the dry-cleaning rack and disappears into the night. She’s clumsy, scared, fearful, riddled with guilt: she tries turning herself in at a police station, but no one’s around and instead she ends up enduring a sloppy rape at the hands of a frustrated truck driver. A major earthquake (the one that hit Kobe in 1995) gives her a chance to vanish with other refugees.
She hides out in a love hotel, where the owner (basset-hound-faced Ittoku Kishibe) is up to his neck in mah-jongg debts and doesn’t particularly care if one of the cleaning women is on the lam. In his own brash, adamant little way, he’s kind to her: the job helps her keep a step ahead of the police, and he teaches her (not very elegantly) the basics of riding a bike—that being one of the things she wished her real father had done for her. Then he hangs himself, the police come, and Masako has to run again. She’d kill herself if she had the nerve, but what she fears most is not death or capture but having to face her sister in the big hereafter.
She runs. She finds solace, again, in a little bar where the madam’s brother is an ex-yakuza (or maybe not as ex- as he likes to say he is) and one of the customers (Jun Kunimura) hits on Masako. Running scared has changed her, though, and by this point she’s learned to disguise herself—to be merry and outgoing, to seem to be enjoying life. And maybe she is, for the first time: when the customer’s wife goes ballistic on her for “seducing” her husband, she refuses to apologize. For once she’s gotten something only other people have been able to savor. And people like her now, genuinely like her.
It only goes so far to stave off the fear inside, though. The true horror is not that she killed her sister and survived, but that she has, in many ways, become her—“reincarnated”, as she puts it. Not just in the fact that she, too, now works as a bar hostess and has a flashy, outgoing demeanor, but that she is willing to do the very things that seemed so repulsive and demeaning to her before because they now mean her continued survival. And one night she flees again, this time to a small island where she works side-by-side with an old woman, doing humble chores, and realizing all too late that there was only so much she could hide from herself or from the world at large.
Sakamoto’s directorial style calls so little attention to itself on the surface, but only so the truly spectacular moments stand out all the more. He shoots ordinary things—a corridor, an empty room—but lights and edits them in ways that make them seem beautiful and strange. Most striking is a moment near the end, when Masako panics and tries to run away; the action is captured and framed through a pole-mounted wide-view mirror, and makes her seem all the more trapped and helpless.
Many great movies toy with your expectations and emotions. We shouldn’t feel for the sociopathic Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or the odd-couple murderers in The Honeymoon Killers, but we do. Not sympathy, but empathy: we may be on opposite sides of the fence, but that doesn’t keep us from having a moment of human recognition. By the end, Masako has come a long way since her glum days in the cleaners’; she’s become someone we would be proud of, and her sheer will to survive is enthralling even when we know where it all comes from. She killed her sister and there is no escaping that, and the movie knows it. Small wonder one of the songs used throughout the film is “The Great Pretender”, with the oh-so-telling line “You never show me your true face”.
Note: This movie is not to be confused with the Korean horror film of the same name.
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