NYAFF Review: Make Up


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

If are now or have ever wanted to be a writer, I’ve got an exercise for you. First, you have to envision a relationship. Now you have to make it a relationship that most people cannot immediately relate to (in this case, make them lesbians). Sound good? Okay, next you have to take this relationship and add something that basically nobody is okay with (in this case, pederasty). Now take your lesbian pederast and her too-young love and make their relationship one that people will care about. Can you do it?

Because the people behind Make Up did. Mostly.

Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh in Make Up Taiwanese movie NYAFF 2012

Make Up (Ming Yun Hua Zhuang Shi | 命运化妆师)
Director: Yi-chi Lien
Rating: NR
Country: Taiwan 

Min-Hsiu (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh) is a mortician who specializes in doing the presentation make up for corpses. When someone wants an open casket funeral, the body needs to be in some kind of presentable shape. Min-Hsiu is very good at her job, closing up giant gashes in faces, recreating prosthetic limbs, and basically doing whatever is necessary to give the family some kind of closure. She wants the family to remember the deceased in the best way possible. I’ve only been to a handful of funerals, but I have always wondered what kind of work went into making a body “look like she’s sleeping.” I have also wondered what kind of people would want to do that. But Min-Hsiu isn’t some sick, depraved person. She’s just someone doing a job. Since she doesn’t know the people she is making up, it’s not too difficult to disassociate the act from the former person.

Until one day, when Min-Hsiu’s former music teacher, Miss Chen Ting (Sonia Sui), appears on her table. This alone would be cause for some discomfort, but it turns out that Min-Hsiu and Miss Chen Ting had been in some kind of relationship back when she was in high school. It’s really quite strange. Lesbian pederasty is hardly the kind of thing that most people can relate to, and it’s also something that the vast majority of people likely have no interest in relating to. Min-Hsui’s job does little to help anyone identify with her as well. It’s as though the director was trying to take characters that nobody could understand and then make them understandable. It’s a strange goal, but a noble one. Movies are interesting because they allow you to see the world through another person’s eyes. Sometimes they are the eyes of a serial killer, or maybe they’re the eyes of a young boy (who is not a serial killer). Ideally, every movie does something to humanize its characters.

Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh and Sonia Sui in Make Up Taiwanese film NYAFF 2012

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I’ve figured out the reason that it works, and that’s because it’s from Min-Hsiu’s point of view. Although it’s never clear how old she is, she can’t be more than 25, and she played the role of the student in that relationship. Seeing the story through her eyes has something of a cleansing effect, because it seems sweet and almost innocent. The age gap is never forgotten, and it definitely plays a role in the public perception of their relationship, but its creepiness factor is mitigated somewhat. Min-Hsui is the prey rather than the predator, so seeing the relationship as she did is kind of reassuring. Had Miss Chen been the protagonist, she would have come across as nothing more than a pederast. It would be far harder to stomach the relationship, even if everything else was exactly the same.

Make Up is about more than just the relationship between Min-Hsiu and Miss Chen, though. The plot mostly follows a young detective-or-something-like-that (Bryant Chang) who is convinced that Miss Chen’s husband (Chung-tien Wu) killed her. Miss Chen told her husband very little about her past (for pretty obvious reasons), and upon finding out that Min-Hsiu knew her back then, he starts to hound her for information. At the same time, the detective/whatever tries to use Min-Hsiu’s new relationship with the husband to get enough evidence to have him arrested/convicted/whatever. 

The plot, while for the most part interesting, is occasionally difficult to follow. Make Up has a lot of side-plots and ideas that are brought up but never adequately resolved. Sometimes they’re just minor things, but all of them seem important at the time and then just disappear. A one off speech about how sometimes you just have to let bad things happen doesn’t count as a resolution. If anything, it’s a primer for a followup thread about trying to overcome those bad things. Fortunately, the main storyline is closed off well, although some strange cutting made it appear like a dead character was alive for a few moments, and I was honestly shocked by one particular revelation, but I needed more closure than the film was willing to provide.

Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh in Make Up Taiwanese film 2012

Visually, Make Up is absolutely gorgeous. There is just something it that beautifully captures the environment. What really distinguishes the film is its use of long takes. These aren’t Children of Men-style shots that took weeks of preparation. They’re much simpler, subtler. Particularly noteworthy is a long shot involving a car mirror, which is absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, the film’s editor went a bit overboard with the use of color correction. The scenes where contrasting lighting is used to set the tone are a sight to behold, but Make Up turns a bit too often towards computer-generated color.

It’s a fine line between good color correction and bad color correction, and Make Up straddles the line a bit too finely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it always a bad thing in this case, but at times it just becomes unnatural. Instead of being cinematic or hyper-real, it just looks out of place. Also strange is the appearance of a jacked up shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds result in less motion blur within frames, and it gives everything an unnatural jitter, one that Make Up definitely seemed to have. I didn’t really like or dislike the effect, and maybe it was all in my head, but it was definitely strange.

Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh and Sonia Sui Taiwanese film 2012 NYAFF

I should have realized that, to some extent, the ending of Make Up could never be completely satisfying. Even if the cause of death is resolved, Miss Chen is still dead. There is no chance for Min Hsiu to rekindle the lost love. Even so, some extra clarity would have been appreciated. I have no idea what happens to any of the characters after the credits roll, and I don’t have any sense of how the events of the film impacted the characters. Maybe I don’t need to know, the filmmakers clearly think I don’t, but I wanted (and still want) to.

Still, it’s impressive that I cared at all. Even seen through the younger party’s eyes, the relationship shouldn’t have worked on any level. Senior high or not, the age gap between Min-Hsui and Miss Chen Ting was too great (half your age plus seven is the rule, if you’re unaware). It was completely not okay, and watching it should have made me angry. Even so, I mourned Min Hsiu’s loss. I wished things had worked out for them. I really shouldn’t have, but I absolutely did.