2011 was a prime year for Taiwanese cinema, with films like Honey PuPu, Blowfish and Starry, Starry Night topping my end of year list, so when I sat down to watch Yi-Chi Lien's
first-time effort Make Up my expectations were up. Luckily Lien
delivers, though not in the same amounts as his predecessors. Still,
Make Up should prove to be a great film for all of you exploring the
modern realm of Taiwanese cinema.
Make Up could've been a regular drama. It has all the elements necessary
to serve up 90 minutes of soft-voiced emotional struggles bathing in
beautiful filters and aided by a simple yet effective piano score. And
it would've been fine like that. But Lien adds an extra storyline that
introduces a few thriller elements to flesh things out a little. While
it does give the film a more unique feel the mix of both genres isn't
quite perfect, making you wonder how the film would've turned out if
Lien had just focused on just one of the two genres.
Somewhat unaware of what this film was about, I just assumed the title
referred to a broken relationship that was to be mended during the
course of the film. You soon find out it's more of a cosmetics thing
though, referring to the make up artists who prepare dead people before
they are presented to their families. A somewhat morbid profession, but
an interesting angle for a film like this. Min-Hsiu is such an expert,
who one day finds one of her old teachers (Chen) lying in front of her.
Min-Hsiu is quite shocked to hear Chen committed suicide, but things get
really weird when she is approached by a private detective who believes
Chen was actually murdered. Unable to let it go, Min-Hsiu uncovers
little bits of information that seem to suggest the detective might be
correct in his assumptions. Meanwhile Chen's former husband is
approaching Min-Hsiu, looking for comfort and some missing pieces of
Chen's past in order to understand what drove her to suicide.
Taiwanese films have a tendency to look beautiful and Make Up is
definitely no exception. From start to finish, every frame looks lush,
rich and detailed. The use of lighting in particular is spectacular, but
the camera angles and use of color too is impeccable. The drama and
thriller parts each have their own color palette but Lien switches
seamlessly between the two visual style. It makes for a stunning film
that carries you through on visuals alone.
As expected, the soundtrack is a bit tamer. Lien opts for a safe set of
music tracks, mostly soft piano music that fares quite well in the
background. A decent score that does the job, but lacks identity. Props
for the discotheque scene though, directors are starting to use some
decent dance tracks instead of those awful "movie disco scenes" songs
they've been using for the last 10 years (though it must be said, I've
noticed it mostly in big budget flicks).
The acting is solid, with Nikki Hsieh and Sonia Sui successfully
carrying most of the film. Bryant Chang's performance is noteworthy too
as the private detective, he has a nice presence that may land him some
international succes. The only weak link is Chen's husband, turning in a
somewhat subpar performance compared to the rest of the cast. It
doesn't ruin the movie as such, but I'm pretty sure the thriller aspect
of the film would've worked a lot better with a different actor.
The key to unlocking the mystery of Make Up lies in Chen's past, which
is revealed slowly through flashbacks of Min-Hsiu. The relationship
between Chen and Min-Hsiu is slowly uncovered and causes an interesting
shift in connections about halfway through the film. It's not an
earth-shattering twist, but if suffices to keep the attention of the
audience with the film as they'll go back to reinterpret some of the
earlier scenes between Chen and Min-Hsiu.
The ending could've been better and lacks impact though. While not bad
or disappointing, it somehow lacks the strength to bring the separate
parts of the film to an appropriate conclusion. At the same time, the
choice to mix both genres makes the film a tad too long as it needs to
take its time to properly explore both sides of the story. Luckily the
stunning visuals coupled with the rich atmosphere help out where the
story falls short, making sure the film as a whole is still very much
worth your time. I'm eagerly looking forward to Lien's next film as
there is definitely some potential to grow, which will no doubt lead to
even better films. For his first effort though, there is plenty to
enjoy, so don't miss out.
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