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.