Make Up (Taiwan, 2011) [NYAFF 2012]

The cinematic output of Taiwan is low on thrillers, which may be for the best based on the lack of tension generated by Lien Yi-chi’s baffling directorial debut Make Up. The film initially promises to cover grisly territory with its focus on Min-hsiu (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh), a make-up artist at a funeral parlour in Taichung, and is first seen securing a client at the scene of a nasty accident. Min-hsiu prefers to work in a solitary manner, reluctant to take on an assistant as professional interaction would interrupt her habit of talking to the corpses on her table as she restores them to physical perfection so that family members have a final chance to say goodbye. Her controlled existence is interrupted when she realises that the latest body to be brought in is that of Chen Ting (Sonia Sui), the music teacher with whom she had a lesbian dalliance as a teenager. Preparing the body for the funeral not only brings back long-buried memories, but also leads to personal complications in the present day: Chen’s bereaved psychiatrist husband, Nie Cheng-fu (Wu Chung-tien) takes an interest in her, as does maverick detective Yung-ming (Bryant Chang), who insists that the coroner’s ruling of suicide is a cover-up, and that foul play was involved in Chen’s death. Yung-ming lacks sufficient evidence, but is headstrong in his efforts to build a case against Nie. Not knowing what to believe, Min-hsiu helps Nie to deal with his grief while also assisting Yung-ming with his investigation.

Despite its thriller set-up, Make Up is more of a languid drama, with the mystery element often secondary to scenes of introspection, or sub-plots and flashbacks that are often unrelated to the central narrative. Elements that seem important early on (Min-hsiu’s imagined conversations with the corpses she is working on, her rivalry with the more aggressive representative of another funeral parlour, the teaching of her approach to the profession to university students) are dropped in favour of the stilted relationships between underdeveloped characters. Everyone in Make Up is rather blank, defined more by their attire, occupations, and professional surroundings than by anything approaching personality: Min-hsiu and Nie are very formal with tidy, if somewhat sterile, work spaces, while the more casually dressed Yung-ming seems to operate out of his car. A preference for classical music is shared by Min-hsiu and Nie, prompting a soundtrack of delicate compositions that tries to suggest depth but only points to Lien’s aspirations to deliver a classy piece of work, regardless of its script deficiencies. In his approach to the case and personal pursuits, Yung-ming is a particularly clichéd loose cannon, keeping the company of a beautiful girlfriend in an apartment that seems beyond his pay grade, while questioning the judgment of his commanding officer. The set of relations between these three characters, who all have secrets that are waiting to come out in the final act, is painfully contrived and the big reveal is likely to result in a collective shrug of audience apathy.

Lien previously served as the assistant director on Wei Te-sheng’s Cape No. 7 (2008), which found a balance between international festival appeal and the popular sensibility of the local audience, but Make Up fails to repeat the trick. Trying to ensure a similar reception, Lien undermines the thriller premise with extended passages of melodrama and romance, as if concerned that viewers will not recognise the film as Taiwanese if it does not feature exquisitely shot scenes of longing in addition to the mystery material. The flashbacks to Min-hsiu’s relationship with Chen are shot in warm colours, with all the trademarks of coming-of-nostalgia intact: meaningful conversations, private piano lessons, and late summer afternoons spent relaxing in the countryside, before the lovers are torn apart by senior staff at the school due to rumours that have been circulating. This treatment of a burgeoning lesbian romance is so tame that it plays like a made-for-television drama, albeit one with some nice cinematography. It is this tastefulness that tonally unites the past and present story strands, as neither rises above the mundane due to the polite aesthetic. When physical conflict finally breaks out between Nie and Yung-ming, it just a minor scrap that is straight out of an East Asian soap opera, suggesting that the Taiwanese film industry is still more comfortable with ruminations on life and love than taut suspense pieces. Make Up narrowly avoids being labelled a mess due to its stylistic consistency, but remains a fatally confused attempt at genre cinema.