Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Movie Review: The Face Reader

Directed by Jae-rim Han. 2013.


The Face Reader has all the makings of a great epic. A grand, operatic opening sweeps us back into Medieval Korea where we find Nae-gyeong, a peasant with the remarkable ability to peer into a man's heart by reading his face. Nae-gyeong is manipulated by everyone in the land who hopes to use that gift for his own advantage. All Nae-gyeong hopes to do, though, is see his son happy and successful, an impossible task because of his father's disgrace which still stains the family and prevents any of them from gaining a post in the government. Throughout we have some light comedy in the antics of his bumbling brother-in-law, a struggle for the throne, and the underlying question whether you can really know what's in man's heart. All the makings, but success?

The opening scenes roll out with a leisure that bids us to settle in. A beautiful woman and her servant walk up to a hillside house where they find Nae-gyeong, the greatest face reader in the land. The woman is the wily chief procuress of the most popular house of courtesans and she proposes that Nae-gyeong use his skill for her and earn some money. When his son runs off in the hopes of becoming a government minister under a false name, Nae-gyeong decides to take the courtesan's offer and sets out with his brother-in-law.

General Kim Jongseo
Nae-gyeong slowly moves his way up the social ladder, helping the courtesan and her circle until his skill catches the attention of General Kim Jongseo, whose service he enters and whom Nae-gyeong helps rid the province of corrupt magistrates and ministers. These scenes find a balance between the humor of the pair's bumbling, the gravity of General Kim Jonseo's attempt to reform the government, and the fun of seeing Nae-gyeong show off his face-reading skills. They also scaffold up to the highest level of political intrigue wherein the mortally ill emperor seeks Nae-gyeong's skill to rid the kingdom of an unknown man who plots a coup against his young son who'll succeed him but be unable to fend off a vicious usurper.

Prince Suyang
The subsequent scenes initially play well, with Nae-gyeong and the loyalist Kim Jongseo scouting for the would-be assassin. We feel the passage of time and the loss of surety as the emperor's passing leads to a period of uncertainty and danger wherein the nation, which hangs on governmental administration, will inevitably fall to either the wise Kim Jongseo or ruthless Prince Suyang. Here the movie was poised to round its circle and comment on its main idea: the crown prince, now the adolescent emperor, still trusts Prince Suyang because he has a trusting face, and so Nae-gyeong concocts a plain with his old friend the courtesan to give Suyang a facial mark which will signify to the young emperor that the man is evil. At the same time, though, Jongseo seems to have committed a terrible crime while the heretofore evil Suyang seems a man of his word. Can a man's face lie, and his heart change?

Apparently not, contra the trailer, and the next act bounces around through confusing nocturnal intrigues and subterfuge, none of which advances so much as prolongs the resolution of the succession question. Here The Face Reader bounces back and forth a bit too much among the machinations of Prince Suyang and his three chief henchmen, about and for whom we don't especially care.

Finally General Suyang seizes the throne and asks Nae-gyeong one last time whether the face reader sees in him the visage of a great king. When Nae-gyeong replies in the affirmative that one day he will be a great king, Suyang in offense at the shrewd response strikes down Nae-gyeong's son. This is a terrible and meaningful if not per se tragic turn in that all of the political maneuverings of the emperor, General Kim Jongseo, and Nae-gyeong have failed and the evil man has won.

When Nae-gyeong reflects on his failure to protect his son and stop Suyang, he finally realizes that his folly laid in seeing the waves and not the wind that moves them. The seasons were changing and he could not fight the winds. This is not an ending either prepared or expected, but it is not an abortive gesture. At first I found it unsatisfying, that the script hewed close to history at the detriment of the drama. Now I find that the ending casts an autumnal, elegiac tone back on events which turned out to be the end of an era; a fitting conclusion, for who can see the end coming? Too, The Face Reader takes a longer, closer look at the personal suffering inflicted by tyranny, dynasty, and political unification in the story of Nae-gyeong and his son, unlike Yimou Zhang's more popular Hero, which glosses over the suffering by gracing the sacrificed with its titular epithet.

The Face Reader is not perfect. It's a tad too long and gets a bit bogged down in political intrigue, but it is thoughtfully made and by turns beautiful, comic, gentle, and full of meaning.

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