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Face (2004)

Tim O'Neil

The same lyrical invention that propels Face's narrative also serves as a stark lesson in the importance of solid plotting.


Director: Sang-Gon Yoo
Cast: Yun-ah Song, Hyeon-jun Shin, Seung-wook Kim, Seok-Hwan An
Distributor: Tartan
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Taewon Entertainment
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-09-27
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Our movie is not only a thriller, it is also a horror movie and a sad love story. I hope that viewers can see how these genres mix together... and get along with one another.
-- Hyeon-jun Shin

As thrillers go, Face is peculiar. Usually such films stick to patterns, intricately plotted templates. Sang-Gon Yoo's movie gets some points for being more than just another in a long line of generic thrillers, but the same lyrical invention that propels the narrative also serves as a stark lesson in the importance of solid plotting.

As it begins, Face seems to be a serial killer movie: a man has kidnapped a girl and taken her to a secret torture chamber in order to remove her heart. After the grisly operation, he drains the body of blood and deposits it in an acid bath. After this scene, the movie shifts its focus from the mystery killer to the forensic scientist Lee Hyeon-Min (Hyeon-Jun Shin), a specialist in facial reconstruction. At this point, the experienced viewer might expect the plot to kick into gear, pitting killer against pathologist in a race against time (or some such). But the experienced viewer would be wrong.

Here the plot takes another left turn. Lee has no desire to investigate the mysterious skeletons being fished out of area lagoons. His daughter (Seung-wook Kim) has a rare and deadly heart condition, and since his wife died, he has devoted every waking moment to ensuring his daughter the best care possible. But -- and of course, there is a but -- circumstance intervenes in the form of Jeong Seon-yeong (Yun-ah Song), a bright pathology student sent by the police to enlist Lee's expertise. Jeong finds a way to reinvigorate Lee's exhausted and overwhelmed heart with her perky shenanigans.

Though the stage is set for characters to intersect and conflicts to commence, Face continues to twist at random, making sharp intersections and surprising connections before fading away. There is no such thing as coincidence in this film. Did I mention that Lee's daughter is the victim of a rare blood deficiency, the fictional beta-allergy? This complicates her surgery, necessitating the procurement of very rare transplant organs. What begins as a serial killer film transforms into an organ donor conspiracy, with slight bivouacs into romantic interlude and supernatural horror.

Wait a minute. Supernatural horror? How does that fit with any other part of the movie? Unfortunately it doesn't, not really. As soon as Lee first declines the case (which he eventually takes on), he suffers from a series of debilitating supernatural visions, including a pale, waterlogged specter with long black hair trailing over her face like clumps of seaweed. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Sang-Gon Yoo had spliced in scenes from Nakata Hideo's Ringu (1998), because the visitation scenes are startlingly similar, almost to the point of plagiarism.

Sang-Gon Yoo suggests that this ghost serves a particular purpose. In an interview for the DVD, he says,

I think the important thing in this movie is this: we imagine ghosts as being frightening and brutal all the time. I didn't want to do that in Face because it would look too horrible. The ghost is mellow and filled with love, and I don't think that scary and brutal movies appeal to the viewers.

Still, it's hard to see the connection between the dangerous poltergeist in the film and the "mellow and filled with love" ghost that he describes. More to the point, this and other superfluous supernatural elements are not explained and don't make much sense; they only spur on Lee's investment in the mystery, and provide a couple of farfetched deus ex machinas. To say the film becomes "bogged down" would be a serious understatement: by the time the finishing credits roll, you feel as if you've seen three different movies in the space of a mere 88 minutes, every one of them unsatisfying.

According to Yoo, such overload has to do with his own increased interest in viewers' experiences.

I used to make films for their artistic expression. But that doesn't quite work in mainstream movies because of the different levels of viewers' tastes. I suppose that in the long run, I must understand and embrace the viewer's perspective. I think in making mainstream movies, the right thing to do is to combine their perspectives with my images and ideas of making a movie.

Though the DVD includes a fair amount of bonus material, at no point during their interviews do cast and crew explain the reasoning behind this conflicted picture. The attempt to bridge the ostensible gap between filmmakers' and viewers' perspectives results in an unhappy compromise. We learn in his interview that Face is Yoo's first full-length feature, after a long career directing short "art" films. As you might expect from a director versed in small-scale character drama, the movie is most effective during its quietest moments, as when Lee and Jeong interact, gradually filling the space between with small gestures and implications. Such scenes are brief, however, and most of the movie caroms from one strange plot point to the next.

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